There was sound and fury, but what did it signify?
It was the first time in years that an E3 Xbox press event didn't open with a Call of Duty game, and this change speaks volumes about the change in Xbox's fortunes since the launch of the PS4 and the Xbox One. Xbox isn't doing poorly on its own, but it resoundingly lost the first round of the eighth generation console fight, lagging significantly behind the PlayStation 4 in hardware sales. Microsoft's plan to gain back that lost ground this year seems to be a three-pronged approach: exclusive games, elite hardware, and Windows 10.
As far as exclusive titles go, Halo 5: Guardians and the surprisingly fresh Gears of War Ultimate Edition are their strongest assets, with Forza Motorsport also being a reliable franchise with little competition in the racing genre. These three games are guaranteed to bring back some gamers who switched to the PS4, as nostalgia and the memories of all-night multiplayer sessions are powerful tools within the Microsoft arsenal. The timed exclusive arrangement with Rise of the Tomb Raider also adds some girl power to Xbox's testosterone-driven line up, as well as some Action Adventure gaming to compliment the shooters.
Meanwhile, Fable Legends still seems like a decidedly watery addition to that franchise, being a game set in the Fable universe but not really the sort of game Fable fans expect. New IPs like Recore and Gigantic will likely have to rely on reviews and word of mouth to sell, since we didn't get a ton of information about them at the press conference, and behind closed doors time was hard to come by. Indie console exclusives like Cuphead through the ID@Xbox program were easier concepts to promote, and it was nice to see games like King's Quest and The Long Dark playable at the Xbox booth. Will Xbox be my system of choice for those games, however? I'm not sure.
Another hit may come from the Rare Replay compilation, offering 30 games for $30 ($39.99 Canadian) Including classics like Battletoads, Banjo Kazooie, and Conker's Bad Fur Day. Microsoft effectively leveraged gaming nostalgia with this announcement and the new backwards compatibility feature for the Xbox One. Games are expensive, and omnibus titles like Rare Replay give undeniable value by bundling older – but still awesome – games together. It's also nice that Xbox is bringing out less-expensive games – Gears Ultimate is also about $45 Canadian, despite adding new-to-console content and a slew of other improvements and features.
For all the exclusives excitement, however, some titles were notable by their absence. Quantum Break, Scalebound, and the Crackdown reboot were nowhere to be found at E3, and while yes, there are other games shows like Gamescom that they may feature at, I think Xbox could have at least managed a tiny nod to the fact that these games are still in development. Furthermore, the lines were so long at the biggest draws – like the Halo 5 “experience”– that a lot of people didn't get hands-on time. That's a new and unfortunate element to Xbox's E3 presence: it's way easier to endorse something after getting hands-on time, and Halo has historically relied too heavily on hype for my liking, particularly given their consistently lacklustre singleplayer campaigns..
Hardware, not software, was the undeniable strength of Xbox's 2015 E3 outing, starting with the Elite Controller. For gamers like me who hate the Xbox One controller's sticky bumpers, spongy triggers, and the ergonomics that are just not welcoming to smaller hands, this is exciting news. The Elite Controller's bumpers are more responsive, the swappable parts accommodate a greater range of hand sizes, the hair trigger feature means your trigger fingers will ache less, and the faceted D-pad adapter allows reliable combo execution without wearing quite so much skin off your thumbs. The optional paddles on the underside of the controller are a nice addition as well, allowing more options for controls mapping that don't require you to take your thumb off the right stick to press a button. It still doesn't match keyboard and mouse for shooter precision, but for other types of games, it's a vast improvement. Some are commenting on the steep price tag of $169.99 CAD, but when you play a lot of games, or you play games for extended periods, anything that reduces physical strain, especially your trigger fingers, is a plus. Furthermore, the Elite Controller is a definite consideration for PC game enthusiasts who sometimes want to play from our couches.
But Microsoft had another cool gadget to show off: the HoloLens. Unlike Virtual Reality devices like Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift, the HoloLens is an Augmented Reality device, meaning it doesn't cut the player off from the real world. The impressive Mincraft HoloLens display – showing a Minecraft build projected onto a tabletop – and the HoloLens element of the Halo 5: Guardians experience, definitely show off the confidence that Microsoft has in this hardware. And they have cause: there's much less intimidation and isolation involved in putting on an AR headset, and it doesn't induce nausea in the same way VR can. Don't get me wrong, I think VR is as cool as anything, but it may have been a smart move for Microsoft to zig where the rest of the industry zagged.
On the flip side, the shakiest element of this year's push is the integration with Windows 10. Windows 10 might end up being a great product, but there's a great deal of confusion surrounding it. I suspect that PC gamers are going to be slow to switch from Windows 7, or even Windows 8, so it's going to be a lot of wait-and-see regarding the Windows 10 features coming to the Xbox One.
That being said, it's fair to determine that Xbox “won” this year's E3. However, it was by a narrow margin, mostly by default since Uncharted 4 won't be out until next March. I'm not sure that they did enough to catch Sony, due to the Call of Duty endorsement and feel-good moves like the Shenmue III Kickstarter promotion, The Last Guardian announcement, and a lot of fresh PlayStation IPs due out in 2016. At the end of the day, games still sell systems, so broadening the types of exclusives on offer will serve Microsoft better than pricey hardware add-ons.
But no matter who won, or by how much, the fierce competition between Xbox and PlayStation benefits consumers now that both companies seem to realize that they have to convince, not force, players to buy new consoles. “It's about the games” is repeated so often because it's true, and the Xbox One still has some holes in its exclusives roster that could easily be plugged by bringing back some old franchises – Alan Wake and a proper Fable game, for instance – or more new stuff along the lines of what Sunset Overdrive did with a solid single player experience. So while the Xbox One has managed a decisive first down this year, it's got some ways to go before I'd call their upcoming stuff a touchdown as Xbox's Triple-A appeal beyond shooters this holiday is almost entirely quarterbacked by Lara Croft.