Games editor Mark Botwright gives his reaction to what was announced during last night's event
As the eager presenters gave way to Microsoft’s President of Interactive Entertainment Business Don Mattrick, to stride out onto the stage, the scene was set.The catch words were “new” and just about any synonym that would avoid undue repetition, but the message was largely the same. The fact that Don seemed to be wearing the same suit as when the 360 was unveiled should have been a sign; Microsoft are a leviathan corporation, and their direction changes about as sharply as an oil tanker.
Entertainment hubs are clearly deemed the future, and as Apple have shown, if you can ensnare enough people into your little ecosystem of cross-pollenating gadgets, you can practically print money. Microsoft’s vision is to have movies, music, TV and, yes, games, all integrated and accessed by one box under your television: the Microsoft One.
Unlike the PS4 announcement from Sony that created a weird Shrodinger’s console discussion on boards - if we haven’t seen it, and the games maybe running on PC architecture, does it exist? - Microsoft at least gave us a glimpse of the revolutionary design and, drumroll, it’s a black box. Sorry, correction, it’s a square black box. I’m no aesthete, but apart from some easily overlooked detailing it looked almost purposefully designed to sneak under the radar and pretend to be a PVR.
Looks aren’t everything though, and Don Mattrick was keen to get his enthusiasm across, this is not only going to be the “ultimate all-in-one entertainment system” but he'd also “never been more excited” (I hope if there's a Mrs Mattrick she wasn’t watching). The key to this excitement, as Yusuf Medhi would demonstrate, is how the One will allow users to watch TV, interact with media and generally do most things we do now, but without switching device.
Kinect hasn’t been shelved, as expected it’s being utilised, but perhaps more than many foresaw. Microsoft were really touting it as being integral to everything the multimedia functionality would hinge upon. Input would be swift (claims of “instant” are always dubious, I’ll wait until it hears a proper provincial British accent before I pass judgement) with voice recognition and hand gestures being used to flick through content and multitask.
The example demo may have been poorly acted, with a buddy sports based theme, but the point being put across was devastatingly simple - multitask with us and you need never turn on another machine. You can watch TV through your One, open a new window and make a Skype video call (which thanks to the new Kinect can be captured in 1080p) or even launch Internet Explorer (apparently it still exists) whilst everything is going on in the background.
Obviously the bold claims of what you could do were fine, but the reality of what the existing infrastructure may cope with is sometimes behind the visions of bods in a lab with fibre optic cabling. Later we’d hear how the LIVE servers would be bumped from fifteen thousand to a staggering three hundred thousand, with cloud storage of content that could be accessed anywhere and any time. This brought with it the news that, similar to Sony’s sharing model with the PS4, One users would be able to utilise gaming DVR features, taking video clips and showcasing them to friends for bragging rights.
The line “always ready and connected” may ring alarm bells. It became clear that this maxim is largely intended to describe the multimedia features, not as a continual monitoring gateway to gaming. However, those worried that it could be a means to cripple the second hand gaming market may have to sweat for a few months. Hopefully it’ll be further clarified at E3.The line “always ready and connected” may ring alarm bells.
On the subject of games (remember them?), well you’ll be playing them with a controller that’s apparently received forty design updates. So extensive was the overhaul that it looks pretty much exactly the same. It will feature more focussed force feedback, so it can be pinpointed to specific triggers, but all the tinkering appears to have been under the hood, thankfully leaving arguably the most ergonomic joypad in modern gaming be.
Speaking of what’s under the hood, core details were scarce, but the big figure pointed once again to where Microsoft’s gaze lay - multitasking - with the 8Gb of RAM the first shot in the decidedly brief horsepower salvo. No posturing, just facts: USB 3.0, Blu-ray and 64 bit architecture as expected. The bold claim of “near silent” running, albeit subjective, might not be music to all ears given the overheating problems the Xbox 360 suffered with, so let’s hope they’ve got the ventilation and solder flow right this time.
Revealing the first volley of titles at these events has become less of a fine art and more finger painting, thanks to the now tired sports/shooter/racer formula necessary for eliciting crowd woops, and that blueprint wasn’t deviated from. As such, Andrew Wilson from EA Sports stepped forward to daub the first gooey digit on One’s blank canvas. Announcing a partnership with Microsoft, he showcased FIFA, Madden NFL, NBA Live and UFC franchises, whilst also touting the new Ignite engine and FIFA 14’s Ultimate Team, an exclusive One feature. The montage’s were slick, as you’d expect, but perhaps lost a little in translation to a non American audience; quite why you’d depict the world’s greatest footballer heading a ball like he was Trevor Brooking I don’t know.
Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios gave us a peek at some well edited Forza 5 footage - very pretty but far from the knockout blow that early rumours of a monumental leap in processing power would result in. The announcement that Remedy would be working on a new title, Quantum Break, had all the hallmarks to be a counter to the exclusive action-adventure titles Sony will no doubt have in their arsenal due to their relationship with Naughty Dog, however the video was a bizarre disappointment. Mixing hammy live action with barely a few seconds of what appeared in-game footage led to a disjointed reveal that massively underwhelmed. In amongst the incredibly slick presentations it stood out like a sore thumb, perhaps intending to be elusive and pique interest, but sadly feeling more poorly executed.
The big guns are likely to be under lock and key for E3 though, so the news that there’ll be fifteen exclusive titles and eight new franchises in the One’s first year on sale is a promising sign for Microsoft’s attendance at the industry event. One big hitter that was wheeled out was Halo, but not in the manner many would have hoped for. Carrying on from the TV-centric spiel, Head of 343 Industries Bonnie Ross revealed none other than Steven Speilberg will be collaborating to bring a live-action Halo to Xbox as a “premium television series”. The use of the term “premium” is sure to get tongues wagging, particularly as we didn’t hear much about the pricing structure or confirmation/denial that there’ll be a two-tiered system applied.
The further blurb peddling an exclusive NFL partnership will hardly have set pulses racing on these shores, but the easiest bullseye of the night for many gamers on both sides of the Atlantic will have been the Call of Duty finale, detailing the new title, CoD: Ghosts. Even though the hyperbole of how much would be revolutionised smacked of overeagerness to be considered part of this supposed brave new dawn, love it or hate it, it’s a surefire hit. Everything is claimed to have been drawn up a fresh, but it’s CoD, you know the score by now - prettier shooting. Oh and this time there’s a dog.
It would be easy to be underwhelmed by the evening’s events, and lack of any proper gaming momentum; it largely played out in the manner most expected, Microsoft continuing to push multimedia functionality. The technology press would no doubt be wowed whilst gamers might ask, “where are the games?”
Many questions went unanswered and, as I write, further info is hitting the net in dribs and drabs, shining light on the console manufacturer’s plans for connectivity, the second hand market and migration of LIVE accounts and content. So much, however, remains up in the air and, similar to the hidden details at Sony’s PS4 event, it’ll likely be at E3 that the definitive answers are given.
Kudos must go to Microsoft, it was a succinct show and their speakers looked more human than ever at this event. I’m sure once the exclusives start raising their heads it’ll be easier to shake off the ominous feeling that a console is being turned into a Trojan Horse for features that distract from the core concept; or worse still, the pursuit of those additions is diverting attention away from the very reason the machine exists in the first place. However, for many the bullet points will be that we’ve seen a box, demonstrations of all the things we can do whilst playing games, but few reasons for dedicated gamers to choose this particular box in the first place. That is, unless you want to “revolutionise” how you watch TV.
Listen to our Podcast Special where we discuss the announcement in detail with the AVF Games Team
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