E3 2015: Microsoft Press Conference Impressions

Microsoft's press conference shunned its traditional Call of Duty opener this year. Instead, Halo 5: Guardians earned its chance to headline the event. A trailer gave us the basic story background most fans already knew, again confirming that Fireteam Osiris ‒ commanded by Jameson Locke from Halo: Nightfall ‒ must retrieve a renegade Master Chief. I assume Chief’s rogue status was all a misunderstanding, so as for new questions, I must know why and when Buck of Halo 3: ODST fame joined with Osiris. The first gameplay tease held no answers.

Dropped into a Covenant stronghold, we got a peek of Locke and his team in action, complete with slow panoramic views and Call of Duty set pieces. The scenery begins crumbling while hostile dropships fly overhead, forcing Fireteam Osiris to sprint, jump, and possibly mash out quick-time events before guaranteeing their safety. The video highlighted Locke’s squad commands, who ordered Buck to disable a gunship and Tanaka to resuscitate Vale. At one point the team split up, one pair engaging Prometheans groundside and the other two removing enemies from an elevated walkway.

Although short and sweet, the demo accomplished its goal, introducing new mechanics without spoiling critical story minutia (the hunter-hunted dynamic is an arguable selling point, after all). Not keen to let the hype fade, Josh Holmes disclosed critical multiplayer details, like drop in, drop out co-op and maps four times larger than your average Halo arenas. We saw a trailer for Warzone, a 24-person Titanfall-inspired mode where two teams confront one another while grunts, outposts, and boss creatures populate the stage, capturing or killing which contributes to the team’s point total. As if I needed further reason to love Halo's online chaos.

Next up we got a look at ReCore from Keiji Inafune and the masters behind Metroid Prime. Featuring a female wanderer and her robot dog, the two brave a merciless desert sandstorm. When the weather clears, the duo stumble upon an abandoned vault, where enemy machines attempt an ambush. Removing their cores disable attackers, despite the girl’s canine detonating in a fit of self-sacrifice. Rather than end on a dire note, however, the heroine stuffs her sidekick’s blue-tinted battery into a nearby robot husk before it reawakens. If I were a betting man, ReCore will involve puzzles, perils, and stuffing cores into discarded automatons.

The ensuing news, that the Xbox One will support backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 games, blindsided me and a majority of viewers. The current catalog covers 18 diverse titles, like Viva Piñata, Toy Soldiers, Mass Effect, etc. Phil Spencer even took a jab at Sony’s PlayStation Now, stressing that you need not buy games you already own. The sole qualm I have is the lengths Microsoft will go to get a vast Xbox 360 library working on its current console. The company dumped backwards compatibility for original Xbox games very early into the Xbox 360’s life cycle. Will Microsoft prove more committed this time? Can they iron out garbage frame rates and unpatchable bugs should they arise?

Following that surprise, Microsoft divulged the Xbox One Elite controller, an adaptable gamepad that could compete with pro controller maker prices. Nah, kidding. Be ready to fork over $150. If you have that disposable income, rear paddles, interchangeable analog sticks and D-pads, and trigger locks scratch the surface of its abilities.

Todd Howard then made another press conference appearance with extra Fallout 4 footage. Folks that tuned in to Bethesda’s conference already witnessed most of the demo that Microsoft provided. Firefight snippets were front and center, as was Fallout’s classic Brotherhood armor and minigun, showing signs that players can survive three seconds without enabling V.A.T.S. Fallout 3’s over-reliance on V.A.T.S. bored me, whereas Fallout 4's alternatives have not killed my curiosity yet. Rounding out the segment, Todd Howard verified that mods would be downloadable, for free, on the Xbox One.

Peter Moore took the reins from there, reminding us EA Access is still alive and adding older releases to its full-game roster. Titanfall and Dragon Age: Inquisition will join the list of available downloads, alongside news that every Xbox Live Gold subscriber can try EA Access this week. I think I could go for more Titanfall.

Not finished yet, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 showed its hand. All we know definitively is that the game arrives early next year and that there seems to be an alien theme to each plant’s design, though I expect the end result to handle similarly to its predecessor. There were nods to other franchises during a trailer, too. A dwarfish zombie called down a mech, Titanfall style, as a flying orange's transformation produced, well, Transformer sound effects.

Handing the helm back to its first party, Turn 10 unveiled clips from Forza Motorsport 6. 26 locations, 450 cars, and 24-player races, I only pray the developers inject some octane-fueled thrills back into Forza’s core series. Forza 5 felt subdued and safe. I barely finished a third of the championships before I retired my driving gloves.

Dark Souls III graced us with its hellscapes in a gorgeous CG trailer afterward. Who are the hunchbacked creatures traversing that castle’s outer walls? Who is the woman wearing the crude-looking crown? Will we fight the faceless titan, the ominous Lord of Cinder, at the trailer's conclusion? Like any Dark Souls showing, Miyazaki and his team left the audience with more questions than answers. I presume the game’s difficulty will stick kick our teeth in, at least.

And for the umpteenth time, Tom Clancy's The Division reinforced the narrative's viral setup, getting to the dark and brooding elements that force the protagonists to "fight for today." Viewers received word that the Xbox One would get an exclusive first beta this December, too.

Continuing the Ubisoft exhibit, Rainbow Six: Siege will ship with free versions of Rainbow Six: Vegas and Vegas 2.

Later, console MOBA Gigantic briefed the audience on its trailer. Sporting lively animated visuals and heroes such as a sword-wielding birdman and massive talking serpents, Gigantic’s eccentricities keep to modern battle arena standards.

Not to be ignored, the traditional ID@Xbox montage confirmed Xbox One versions of many unreleased or early access PC games. Among them: Sword Coast Legends, Ark: Survival Evolved, The Long Dark, and Superhot. I expect those top-down RPGs and survival simulators translate well to a controller, because precision is vital when assailants attempt to kill your dinos or steal a precious can of beans.

Onto another game onslaught, Steve Gaynor of Fullbright ushered in a trailer for Tacoma, an isolated sci-fi adventure that looks to retain Gone Home’s minimal UI and meaningful interactions between the protagonist(s) and surroundings.

Aurora44 educated us on Ashen, a purportedly exploration-heavy RPG that requires players to forge relationships with other nomads to bolster their survival. Predictably, the settings paint a bleak, gray picture, though the unconventional monsters ‒ from skeletal trees to mossy, flying whales ‒ stand out more than the faceless characters.

Beyond Eyes made its case, too, developer Tiger and Squid presenting a blind heroine that employs her remaining heightened senses to leave her village and navigate the hazardous outdoors. If nothing else, the watercolor graphics deserve a second glance. 

Perhaps Cuphead had the strongest showing of these four games. If ever you wanted to control Steamboat Willie (or cartoons known for their exaggerated animation styles), Cuphead has got you covered. Battling anthropomorphic carrots and colossal mermaids should teach you never to wager against the Devil.

Cashing in on that hot early access business, however, Microsoft launched Xbox Game Preview yesterday. Here you can download free game trials like The Long Dark and Elite: Dangerous before you decide to invest money now, later, or not at all.

Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, was then handed the floor to describe Ion. Set in the confines of space, players must colonize the universe while aiding or confronting pioneers online. Not keen to leave the open world survival genre just yet, you battle against environmental pressures like air pressure, heat, and the cold … before inescapably getting killed by the allies you once trusted.

Is that why Lara Croft journeys alone? Rise of the Tomb Raider’s demo began on a cliffside, highlighting the inhospitable tundra. Assisting Lara, Jonah helps the young adventuress scale the frigid mountain and make multiple leaps of faith. Thanks to the camera angles maximizing fleeting dangers, Tomb Raider bares its Uncharted roots. An avalanche threatened to consume Lara in its snowy blitzkrieg, because why call this Tomb Raider sequel if mother nature did not want its heroine dead? Regardless, the closing trailer afforded glances of icy forests, rusty prisons, and decaying tombs.

Time for a climate change. Microsoft announced Rare Replay, a collection of 30 Rare games (Perfect Dark, Blast Corps, Conker's Bad Fur Day), to brighten this sparse summer come August, but Rare is one studio for which I have no nostalgia.

Alongside that announcement, Rare brought Sea of Thieves to public eyes. A nautical spin on co-op and multiplayer, look forward to leading a band of pirate friends to glory in naval warfare and forcing allies to walk the plank. Scurvy sold separately.

Fable Legends’ trailer drew attention to a new villain thereafter, voiced by Lena Headey (or a very close soundalike), yet I harbor no love for the Fable franchise, free-to-play or not.

Fable Legends also preceded reports that every Oculus Rift would bundle in an Xbox One controller. Further outlining the VR push, Microsoft declared a partnership with Valve and its Vive headset.

Minecraft and HoloLens concluded the augmented reality talks, illustrating the latter’s creative capacity. Players can project their worlds onto flat surfaces, move and zoom around with naught except their hands, and issue voice commands to alter the environments. I will not ruin the rest of the presentation. Nothing but a video can do HoloLens justice, even if Microsoft’s experiment masked a little E3 trickery.

Saving the best announcements for last, Rod Ferguson confirmed the identity of a Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, featuring the original Gears of War remastered at 60 frames per second and in 1080p.

One more thing, Gears of War 4 (or just Gears 4) depicted two protagonists searching a dark and abandoned cobblestone town before a damn lightning tornado assaulted the duo. The horror showcase continued as the pair entered a basement infected by glowing pods. What breed of beast do they belong to, if not the four-legged, spike-tailed, multi-tongue monsters in the next firefight? Call me a fanboy, but I'm sold. Expect to see me playing Gears 4 at launch next holiday season.

So after an exhaustive press conference, where does Microsoft stand in regards to the others? Microsoft had something for everybody, be it the diehard first-party fans, the older nostalgics, the VR hopefuls, or the booming indie audience. They did it all without Scalebound, Quantum Break, or Crackdown, too. Not a bad E3 Day 0 opener.  

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