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The State of Xbox: 24 remarks on Microsoft's E3 presentation

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Halo Trailer

1. The videogame industry trends brash and macho. This is partially because the industry spent most of the last decade making hilarious billions of dollars, and partially because the industry mostly constitutes a gigantic dude-frat of workaholic nerds. Of the three major videogame companies right now, none is brasher or more macho than Microsoft. Their Xbox became a powerhouse off the back of games like Halo and Gears of War and Left 4 Dead and infinite Calls of Duty played on the robust Xbox live system. It’s difficult to generalize about consoles — or at least, the consoles not designed by Nintendo in the last decade — and it’s worth pointing out that Braid, the artiest of indie games in our arty-indie game golden era, debuted on the Xbox Live Arcade. But put it this way: I don’t think anyone has ever considered the Xbox beautiful. Unless you think tanks are beautiful. More on tanks later.

2. Microsoft came into this year’s E3 with a big problem. They announced a new console just a few weeks ago: The Xbox One. This console became incredibly controversial. Some of the reasons for that controversy are semi-abstract Digital Rights Management issues that you should care about, but probably don’t, because it’s too confusing. Suffice it to say that the Xbox One essentially removes the very concept of “ownership” from videogames. You don’t buy a game anymore; you pay Microsoft for the right to play the game, a right they can rescind if they want to. This is a major issue, and like the other very controversial issues surrounding the Xbox One, Microsoft pointedly did their best to not mention it at all in their E3 presentation on Monday. This gave the whole event a weird wag-the-dog vibe, as if the whole show was a grand distraction from the larger issues.

3. In the first 10 minutes of the Microsoft presentation, there were two different games that prominently featured a man with their arm cut off. One of these games was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, an open-world rendition of one of the weirdest popular franchises in videogame history. The other game was called Ryse: Son of Rome, an Roman-epic action game, which looked so impressive that you could almost forgive the fact that it was titled Ryse.

4. This presentation, everyone stressed, was All About The Games. If you have to insist that a major presentation of a new game console at the year’s biggest game event is All About The Games, you’ve probably already sunk into a deep hole of bad publicity.

5. So let’s talk about the games. One of the first Xbox One exclusives that Microsoft revealed was Killer Instinct, the remake of a fondly remembered arcade fighting game from the ’90s. I have no idea why anyone would want to play a Killer Instinct game that basically looks like Tekken Tag Tournament with more werewolf, but people cheered like crazy.

6. The next Xbox One exclusive was Sunset Overdrive, which looks a little bit like Borderlands meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets last year’s trailer for Watch Dogs with ziplines. (Ziplines: So hot right now.) As with most of the Xbox One exclusives, the trailer was short on gameplay and long on “HOLY CRAP LOOK HOW GOOD THESE GRAPHICS ARE, THE BEST GRAPHICS YOU’VE EVER SEEN!”

7. Here is Microsoft in a nutshell. When they showed off the newest edition of Forza Motorsport, they rhapsodized about the McLaren P1, an experimental super-car. There are only two such cars in the world, we were told. But the new Forza Motorsport will feature it prominently, in videogame form. But just to drive the point home, at the end of the demo, one of the McClaren P1’s suddenly appeared onstage. Remember that scene at the end of Fast Five, when Tyrese brags that he just bought one of the world’s coolest cars — a car that is so cool that he owns the only one on the North American continent? I mean it as a compliment and a serious critique when I say that Microsoft is the Tyrese of E3 2013.

7.1 And remember how, immediately after Tyrese shows off his cool new car that he says only he is cool enough to own, Ludacris announces that he also bought one of those extremely rare cool cars, but unlike Tyrese, he isn’t bragging about it? And remember how Ludacris uses his money to open a garage so he can explore his passion of working on cars, whereas Tyrese uses his money to get a lot of girls and go to Vegas? I mean is as a compliment and a positive critique when I say that Sony is the Ludacris of E3 2013.

8. Remedy Entertainment came onstage to show off Quantum Break, a game about “a desperate hero who has survived a failed science experiment that broke down time, causing it to stutter and freeze.” This is a nifty idea, although we saw none of the gameplay. But Quantum Break isn’t just a game; they intend to blur the lines between gaming and television. “The choices you make create your personalized version of the TV show,” said Remedy Entertainment head Sam Lake. “Watching the show gives you insights that impact the way you play the game.” Left unexplained: How this so-called “personalized TV show” was different from “an in-game cinematic that never ends.”

9. We should not be cynical. Just because some of these wonky next-gen experiments sound doomed to failure doesn’t mean the experiment wasn’t worthwhile. Personally, I can’t understand why the hell anyone would want to purchase a videogame that leads into a TV show. But the first time it works, it will change everything. If it ever works. Which it might not.

10. An experiment that seemed much more interesting: Microsoft showed off more of “Project Spark,” the fascinating game creation mechanism which mixes together Kinect and SmartGlass — two things which have heretofore been “a cute gimmick” and “a pointless gimmick” — to allow you to create elaborate worlds of gameplay. It’s basically something between Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet. Weirdly, the mechanism of creating the world looked exactly like the immediately forgotten Xbox live curio From Dust. If it works, it could be the iMovie of videogames.

11. This is probably the moment to bring up the fact that the Xbox presentation wound up with a Rape Joke Controversy. It all came down to an extremely poor choice of words. During a demonstration of the aforementioned Killer Instinct, a male Xbox guy employee brought a genuine human female onstage to play against him. This is what happened:

For clarity, here are some quotes taken extremely out of context:

Male: “There we go. Just let it happen. It’ll be over soon.”

Female: “You have a fight stick!”

Male: (as his digital avatar is punching her digital avatar) “Wow, you like those!”

Female: “No, I don’t like this.”

Maybe you think those comments were out of context. Maybe this was a matter of friendly gamer joshing. But whatever the intention, the optics on this were not good, not good at all. In publicity terms, the Xbox One is now the system for date-rapist dystopian dictators.

12. How bad was the Xbox Rape Joke Controversy? Jonathan Blow, the reigning voice of the videogame intelligentsia, tweeted about it. Blow is the guy who made Braid. Blow’s next game is heading to the Playstation 4.

13. Another game that Xbox showed off was Dead Rising 3, the newest entry in everyone’s fourth-favorite zombie franchise. Here again, the pitch was simple: Look at all this stuff. The new game is open-world. There are no load times. And there are so many zombies. SO MANY ZOMBIES. You have never seen as many zombies as you have in the trailer for Dead Rising 3. The Xbox One’s defining trait right now is the Much Muchness of it all. Many of the other big exclusives showed off were sequels: The Witcher 3, Battlefield 4. In each case, the vibe was roughly the same: You’ve seen this before, except now it’s huge.

14. About Battlefield 4, or, as it’s actually and confusingly titled, Battlefield 4: Second Assault. The demo which Microsoft showed off on their presentation showed a squad of badasses fighting their way through a sinking ship. By which I mean: In about four minutes, you played through several different levels of a ship that was falling to pieces, killing enemies on all sides. I can’t imagine any situation like that ever happening in the real world or in any world that resembles reality. Later, at the EA presentation, a second demo of Battlefield 4 played, in which you fight your way to the top of a skyscraper and then you jump off the skyscraper and parachute to the ground and then the skyscraper falls over. Like, if anything like that ever actually happened in the real world, it would be considered the single most impressive action ever taken by any military force in history.

15. Dead Rising 3 prominently featured a tie-in with SmartGlass on your  Tablet. Basically, you can use your Tablet to call in artillery support. I have so many questions about this. First of all: Are there a lot of people who keep their tablet right in front of them when they’re playing a videogame? If you’re playing Dead Rising 3 and you want to call in artillery support, do you have to put down your Xbox controller and pick up your tablet to do that? Wouldn’t it be great if you could call in artillery support using your Xbox controller, which — as its name indicates — is typically the thing you use to control your Xbox? And if you can call in artillery support using your Xbox controller, then why the hell should I buy a tablet?

16. Because Microsoft is All About The Games, they made sure to mention that they have created Five Brand New Studios to create New Blockbuster Franchises for the Xbox, and they hold the names of those Studios in this envelope, and that envelope will be opened any second now. Now, I’m just kidding. They mentioned that a studio called Black Tusk was working on a game. They showed us a preview of the game. Here is what we saw: A city. Fireworks going off. Someone rappelling down the side of a building and kicking his way into the window, taking down an armed assailant. The End. So now you know, everyone: Xbox is working on a blockbuster franchise about Building Rappelling!

17. Here is Microsoft in a nutshell. They have created Five Brand New Studios, and that studios’ whole stated purpose is making New Blockbuster Franchises. That statement isn’t even couched in publicityspeak, like “Those studios are expanding the possibilities of next-generation hardware” or “Those studios represent Microsoft’s commitment to satisfying every quadrant of our awesome fanbase.” No, the message is: “We wanna make stuff that’s popular, and we’ve got a buncha people tryin’ ta make stuff that’s popular, cuz that’s what sells, the popular stuff.”

18. Another Xbox Exclusive was introduced. A figure wearing a cloak was walking through the desert. Sand stretched out in every direction around him. It looked — almost certainly accidentally — like a big-budget remake of Journey. Then a gigantic crater opened up in the sand, and a giant ship-monster thing arose from the sand, and the figure pulled back his cloak…and revealed that he was none other than Master Chief.

19. There are two things to take from that reveal. First, a metaphor: Microsoft’s presentation constantly showed you something that threatened to be new, before revealing itself as something you’ve seen many times before. Second, a gut reaction: I didn’t even like Halo 4 very much, and that brief video got me excited for Halo 5. (Pictured above.)

20. Here is E3 in a nutshell. When someone onstage said that the new Xbox One Halo would run “at 60 frames a second,” there were loud cheers.

21. The Xbox One is arriving in November. It will cost $499. That is $100 more than the Playstation 4. As of today, Sony is winning the publicity war. But right now, it’s just publicity. I’ll have more to report when I get hands-on time with the Xbox games.

22. Because it’s important to remember that everyone thought the original Xbox would fail until it didn’t. And there’s at least one cool-looking brand new exclusive-to-Xbox game that looked pretty cool. Titanfall sounds like a compromise title from a boardroom whiteboard and is basically the videogame version of James Cameron’s Futuristic Exoskeletons. But the gameplay we saw, with human beings fighting other humans and human beings fighting giant robots and human beings getting inside of giant robots, looked good. It looked brash. It looked macho. It looked like Xbox.

23. The Xbox One pitch is simple: “We are the best. We know what we’re doing. If you pay us a lot of money, you’ll get the best version of an Xbox experience ever. Trust us. Hey pledge: Drink this beer.”

24. One of the first games that Microsoft showed off was the Xbox 360 version of World of Tanks, which is a game about tanks working together with other tanks to fight tanks in a world of tanks where tanks are tanks. Online, the game has become incredibly popular. Online, it is free-to-play. On the Xbox, it’s only free if you’re paying Xbox for an Xbox Live Gold Membership. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay for the game. Either way, you’re paying for it. Maybe that‘s Microsoft in a nutshell.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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