Better With Kinect – The Musical

Microsoft Press Conference E3 2012

After the last few years of E3, I was expecting the worst from Microsoft. Previous years have bought us lacklustre showings whose only entertainment value has come from awkward presentation failures. I may be able to remember what the bottom of an avatar’s foot looks like, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you anything else that happened. Hence, hesitation began to creep as I made my way and sat down in the conference hall, separated from my ally Chris, and sat down next to someone who didn’t seem to realise or care that I was seated next to him and proceed to use half of my chair to lean on. After re-seating and amusing myself with the idea that Microsoft should have made the conference a Rock-Opera called “Better With Kinect” (we could clear the floor of seating and allow mosh pits of excitement for each announcement!), the presentation began.

Much as I don’t consider myself a fan of the Halo series, the live action trailer did plenty to intrigue, as we saw a UNSC starship commissioned for peace rather than war get attacked by a mysterious force. I couldn’t help but let the trailer remind me of Dead Space, in the way that everything started to go tits-up and the horror of the crew as they were attacked made me wonder if Halo was going to start going in a new direction. Then, as the starship crash landed onto a nearby planet, I started to wonder if we humans need minders or something; every sci-fi story ever written has proven we can’t do anything in space without fucking it up somehow. Sadly, my rapidly rising hopes were dashed as Master Chief arrived and entered the dense foliage ahead of him in his approach to the newly crashed ship. Halo in a jungle, eh? Change the bloody record. By the time the covenant showed up, I was about ready to give up – it felt like 343 Studios hadn’t even bothered to innovate the series and we were just going to get more of the same. Suddenly, the some new enemies began to show up and wreak some havoc – synthetic enemies.

For some reason or another, the Forerunners have returned and they’re… surprisingly familiar to anyone who has played the Metroid Prime series. I’m sure that any similarities are purely incidental but, for a moment, I’d begun to believe that someone had announced a crossover a while back without me knowing. While I’m in no doubt that there are websites out there furiously scrutinising every single difference between Halo 4 and every other game in the franchise, those like me who have tired of the series probably wouldn’t have found anything to salivate over.

Next up, the action took us to the Middle East, with the playable character carrying a body towards a tent. As the people inside the tent took the body and began to examine it, the player marked each target and executed them in turn. Sam Fisher’s made a list, and he’s probably too busy killing to check it twice. While I remember what I’ve never played of Splinter Cell being stealth first, action last title, Blacklist seems to have a solid mix of the two, as Sam flits between cover before dropping bodies. The first espousal of games being better with Kinect rears its head when the demonstrators use it to make Sam call out and ensnare a guard before striking, and another arrives soon after when an airstrike is called in at Sam’s behest. A room is breached, enemies are dropped and the target is held at gunpoint, at which point he pulls Fisher’s trigger himself to the shock of our hero, who then announces to his support via radio that the target shot himself. Yeah, with your gun, you prick!

At this point, Andrew Wilson of EA Sports shows up and I contemplate having a quick nap. I know nothing about the Madden series, and pretending I do or browsing Wikipedia is time better spent doing anything else in the world. However, the first game they’re showing off is the new FIFA, and hilariously the room goes completely silent – even the guys whooping at most of the announcements can’t bring themselves to enthuse. Again, the “better with Kinect” mantra is bleated as it’s revealed that you can use the device to issue voice commands in lieu of, say, pressing the menu button and changing tactics and players that way. I can’t help but chuckle when they demonstrate that you can swear at the referee if he makes a call you disagree with; I hope they include an option where you can sweet talk him, if anything because the idea of footballers being anything other than ignorant overpaid ball-lickers (sorry, I meant kickers) amuses me.

Some guy called Montana comes on-stage to talk about Madden, and I’m left to sit dumbfounded as to why he’s so important; this must be what my friends at home feel like whenever I talk about videogames. As he demonstrates the power of voice recognition by giving orders for set plays, I can’t get behind the guy’s total lack of enthusiasm; surely the ability to have all of your lines pre-prepared on a teleprompter would give you more time to fake a reaction other than total apathy.

There’s a lacklustre trailer for Fable: The Journey, and I breathe a sigh of relief that Peter Molyneux isn’t working on the series anymore so I don’t have to hear him promise us gold and give us pyrite instead. I’m then left lamenting the cancellation of Bulletstorm 2, as People Can Fly have, instead, been working on another Gears of War title,  subtitled Judgement – mine is that it’s probably going to be more of the bloody same; not to mention that it also has Baird, the whiniest and most punch-able member of Delta Squad as the protagonist. It’d be like if Nintendo made a Zelda spin-off where you played Tingle… except they actually did that and I have it packed with my DS back at the GLE3HQ.

The announcement that follows is Forza: Horizon, and my inability to care about the franchise is compounded when the dub-step kicks in. When did dub-step become the new thing that all game trailers had to include; did I miss that memo or something? I’m convinced that no one really likes dub-step unless they’re massively pissed or like torturing electronics, which I’m pretty sure is going to be what’ll encourage Skynet to attack several years early.

Yet more Kinect as there’s some talk about Bing being available in different languages soon and the re-launch of the music division as “Xbox Music”, putting the final nail in the coffin for Zune, which has probably long decomposed by now. While it didn’t happen until much later, this is a better time than any to talk about the Internet Explorer announcement. Frankly, it’s not something to brag about; IE is only used by people who haven’t heard of other browsers, and if it wasn’t Microsoft’s own creation they’d definitely be using something else. Come on, Sony and Nintendo have had browsers on their consoles for ages; Nintendo have had Opera on the Wii for years, and they’re as internet competent as a grandmother giving all her money to a Nigerian 419 scam.

Nike come out and talk about their alliance with Microsoft to further the proliferation of their Nike+ program. Unlike anything else so far, this announcement actually has me intrigued; the ‘gamification’ of exercise is practically a no-brainer, and with a universal scoring system in place, it means runners can feasibly compete with swimmers, who can square off against tennis players. Putting that system on the Xbox and encouraging you to challenge your friends is an almost admirable step, and it’ll motivate the more competitive of us to get up off our seats. Well, at least until we overdo it, hurt ourselves, give up forever and order in some fast-food.

Speaking of ideas that are great in theory, Microsoft followed this with an announcement of their own: Smartglass. The principle behind it is that it syncs your console with your Windows 8 tablet and/or phone, meaning that you can start watching a film on your way home from work via a portable device, then go home and finish it on the big screen. Think cloud saving, but for ‘entertainment’ more than gaming. Some titles will support it, but functionality looks clunky at the moment; stopping the action for several sections to pick up a tablet or phone, mess with that, then put that device down, pick up the controller and continue playing isn’t just time-consuming, it’s also totally immersion breaking. Not to harp on about Nintendo and the DS, but at least the screen with all the info was right next to the other and was instantly accessible.

The Smartglass is a smart idea, but one that’ll inevitably be poorly implemented, seldom used, dropped unceremoniously and only ever mentioned by people like me who like to point other people’s failures for their own amusement. Admittedly, I can see why they haven’t announced a new console yet, as all these announcements feel like they’re prototypes being tested out before coming out on launch the next time around. I can’t help but feel bad for Lorna now, as she’s probably spitting acid at this continued push into Xbox as a casual brand rather than a games console.

Last year, Tomb Raider dropped jaws as we got to see a more vulnerable Lara Croft get tossed around like a ragdoll and put in enough QTEs for even the most excitable of us to become slightly wary. This time around, we’re shown a later section of the game, as Lara begins to sneak up to a bunch of guards, one of whom sounds remarkably like Jason Statham, before severing their life-cords with a gentle yank, courtesy of her bow and arrow. It’s here that the action takes a bit more of a third-person shooter perspective, as Lara hides behind rapidly splintering cover and uses the environment to her advantage, shooting down torches to set fire to unsuspecting henchmen, one of whom is a fan of stating the obvious as he announces to all those within earshot (and therefore eyeshot) that he is, in fact, on fire.

Soon enough, the action takes a turn for the cinematic as Lara falls into a waterfall, then into a crashed airplane which breaks and sends her careening into the ground below when her parachute fails to open, leaving her to deploy the back-up and fly through the trees in front of her without impaling herself on a branch. From what the demo showed, Lara’s become so unlucky that black cats avoid crossing her path and mirrors try not to break her in case they get seven years bad luck. The abuse she suffers is so constant that I’d probably become physically uncomfortable playing Tomb Raider. It looks like it’s going to be one of the most memorable games coming out in the next twelve months, but it’s so bleak that I don’t think you could blame anyone who’d instead choose to watch a cute puppy getting punched because it’s less depressing.

A trailer plays for a new game by the makers of Toy Soldiers and it’s massively underwhelming. There’s a guy in a mask that’s on the wrong side of the line between intimidating and “my momma sez I can dress myself now”, and the action seems unresponsive and poorly paced. Twisted Pixel have a new game called Lococycle coming soon as well, and that’s literally all the information about the game that I could gather from the trailer. Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean and Rango, is working on a new game called Matter, which features floating balls with extendable eye-stalks, but don’t read into that too much. It looks great right up until the “made for Kinect” text shows up, at which point all interest for the title drops faster than Vita sales in Japan. Later on there’s a demo for something called Wreckateer, but all you do is fire cannonballs at castles with Kinect, which manages to look thrice as boring as I made it sound.

A rotting corpse shambles onstage, and the only way to stop it is by removing the head or destroying the brain. Unfortunately, no one does and so we’re forced to watch a live demo for Resident Evil 6; I’m not even a fan of the series (four was pretty good) and even I’m wondering what the heck they’ve done to it. Yeah, the traditional zombies are back, but most of them don’t flinch at bullets anymore, there’s no visible ammo counter so it looks like Leon’s got unlimited ammo, there are more QTEs then there is actual game-play, and there’s a bit where you run towards the screen while stuff happens behind you. It’s so action focused that the only link to the series are the zombies, Leon Kennedy and writing that makes my GCSE Drama script read like Shakespeare. Xbox will get the DLC first and this is apparently whoop-worthy news. Do you remember when we used to hate being nickel and dimed for DLC when they could have put that shit in the game originally? Now people actively cheer that they’re not getting the full game on release. I don’t even know.

Things start looking a lot brighter for me when the South Park: Stick of Truth arrives, and those who are fans of the series are in for a treat as Obsidian have managed to get the look and feel of the show down, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone arrive on-stage, tellingly the only people at the expo who weren’t slaves to the teleprompter. As they parodied the concept of the Smartglass, they moved on to explain how hard they were working on the title, to the point that they had to map out the entire town from scratch, were writing and providing voices, and were so busy that they were leaving to go back to the studio as soon as the conference was over. This is when the conference started to take a weird turn, as I went from having my writing idols onstage to seeing Usher live in concert in the space of a minute. I think he was helping sell Dance Central 3. Or maybe copies of his new single, it was hard to tell.

The end approached, and we were left with footage of the latest in the Call of Duty franchise. A voiceover pointed out all of America’s ‘shiny toys’, and asked what would happen if someone took the keys. The answer apparently isn’t “keep a copy of the keys” or “change the locks”, but “get fucked sideways”, as the screen revealed a futuristic and war-torn city being laid to waste. Your mission? Protect the President. How did it look? A bit like a cluster-fuck. What made Modern Warfare such a highly rated title was the way it was cleanly presented and, if anything, slightly subtle at times.

There’s so much going on visibly and audibly with Black Ops 2 that it was more than difficult keeping up with the action; the aesthetics were so distracting that it was hard to tell what was going on. From what I gathered, it’s more of the same gung-ho attitude that the series has displayed in the last few years, but while I like the concept of the game it might just be the turning point for the franchise.

And with that, the conference was over. It wasn’t the best conference of the day, but it was a much better display than Microsoft have shown in recent years. Smartglass and Nike+ are interesting concepts that will rely on their execution, and while many of the games being displayed have taken a new slant on their respective franchise, some of them are still touting the magic of Kinect as a new way to play rather than a needless add-on that could be circumvented if Microsoft just allowed us to use our headsets. With a new console still unannounced, there’ll yet be a decent battle between Sony and Microsoft as the current generation enters its swansong.

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  1. [...] My thoughts strayed from frustration, to anger, to overall apathy.  As mentioned in Ed’s rather spiffy Microsoft E3 piece, I wasn’t impressed by the direction that Microsoft are going.  I feel pretty isolated and let [...]

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