The E3 2013 Conferences, Or How The Console Generation Was Won
Every time E3 rolls around the conferences, for better or worse, end up becoming the most significant events of the entire year; every single line, announcement or flub becomes a marketing slogan, title to look forward to or entertaining internet meme. It’s the importance of these that causes companies to roll out clueless celebrities, upper management and developers whose conversations with other players on-stage routinely cause hands to clasp over eyes and hope for a spontaneous meteor shower to make the whole thing less awkward. A side-effect of all this is that these presentations are soon used as the jumping point of fanboyism, and the rabid hordes will take to the internet – keyboards and gifs in tow – to discuss “who won”.
No longer are these just keynotes for the year ahead, but they become competitions, and though I consider myself the last person to jump on this rhetoric – owing to the fact that Nintendo win outright for me every time – this year, it’s almost impossible not to. With the launch of the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, everyone knew that the coming conferences would be vital viewing, but the safest bet would have been that Sony would just edge out Microsoft in terms of price point and line-up. I could never have anticipated that last night was the one where I’d become part of gaming’s history. I was there when Sony won.
As the company forced to blink first, Microsoft could have done a lot worse. True to their promise, the conference focused far more on the upcoming titles for their next Xbox than any of its features – having previously worried gamers with its “features” a few weeks prior – but it wasn’t too difficult to feel a bit cold to it all. Ryse? I’ve had more interesting battles with my toilet. Halo, again? He wears a suit that’s designed for all temperatures and he burst through several atmospheres without so much as a scratch on him, so why does he need to wear rags in a sandstorm? Forza 5? While it looked pretty and the AI that tracks how you play so friends can play against a rough approximation of you is a genuinely clever and innovative idea, the word “Drivatar” sounds more like the production of a furious bong session than the next big thing.
There were some great ideas bandied around – along with more of the same – but it all started to feel a bit soulless after a while. A far more significant and telling move was that none of the titles shown – save that one where the sound cut out whose name I’ve forgotten already, despite asking what it was called three times before I started typing this sentence – necessitated the use of Kinect, despite it being a mandatory addition to the point where the console will flat out refuse to work if the damn thing’s not plugged in. Breathe a sigh of relief that, for the most part, we’re not going to have woefully-inept features forced into upcoming titles, but why make it mandatory to even use in the first place, then? I can’t even remember there not being a moment where someone awkwardly shouted “Kinect, do this thing I could easily have done a lot faster by pressing a button rather than talking to you”, only for it to misinterpret what they’ve said because it can’t understand accents.
For Microsoft, it wasn’t just what they were saying, but also what they weren’t. The crowds cheered when Killer Instinct was drudged back up from the franchise stockpile, but you wouldn’t find out until afterwards that it was a free-to-play title developed not by Rare but by Double Helix – developers of Silent Hill: Homecoming, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and last year’s Battleship The Movie tie-in. Former Infinity Ward devs Respawn unveiled Titanfall – a first-person shooter that looked interesting solely because there were some mechs in it – as console exclusive to Microsoft, but you wouldn’t find out until EA’s conference later in the day that it was a multiplayer-only title, thus guaranteeing that the only accurate part of their demo was that people will shout at you, but their cries will be focused more on what family member of yours they’ve been sticking it to than whatever your objective is.
Sunset Overdrive threatened to interest right up until you remembered it was an Insomniac title and the last time they unveiled something that colourful and interesting EA got hold of it and turned it into a gritty third-person cover-based shooter that you only know was released last month because you’ve read this sentence. Project Spark also considered being remotely interesting before you just knew everyone playing would just be making phalluses in the landscape and the on-stage patter killed all enthusiasm within a five-mile radius. Far more egregious was during the aforementioned Killer Instinct reveal, when the woman being pummeled was told to “lie back, it’ll all be over soon”. The fact that someone at Microsoft may have scripted a rape joke and someone else signed off on it would make for a more interesting metaphor on the console itself were it not for the fact that Microsoft, if the internet is to be believed, made a rape joke when trying to sell their new console.
Once the dust had settled and the $499 price point (and £429 in the UK, which translates to $668) was revealed, I made tracks to the EA conference, where the general consensus from those around me was that while some of the titles were impressive, none were enough to justify the spending price except maybe Dead Rising 3 which, while technically impressive, seemed to have had all of the whimsicality of the previous titles surgically removed. As EA were about to begin, Peter Moore came out to warm up the crowd, reminiscing about the time he rolled up his sleeve to reveal the GTA4 logo, as well as ribbing some of the elite members of the journalism scene. With the new console generation at hand, you’d expect them to be out in full force, and they made clear their intentions by opening with Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Wait, what? On top of the upcoming Plants vs Zombies 2, Popcap are releasing a co-operative third-person horde shooter with the titular creations fully rendered in 3D in the Frostbite 3 engine. Full of humour and sly digs at the famous Call of Duty series, it looks like it’s going to be a clever take on the horde formula and full of hilarious moments, though time will tell if it has any staying power.
There was a longer look at Titanfall during this presentation, which is when it was revealed that it would be a multiplayer-only title, but that revelation wasn’t what disappointed me and left me rather cold to the upcoming shooter, it was the fact that they kept referring to it as a single-player experience. If they’d only said it once I wouldn’t mind, but it was the buzzword of their segment and it left me feeling like it wasn’t going to be the best of both worlds. Similarly, I didn’t immediately fall for Need for Speed Rivals either, owing mostly to the fact that it was for all intents and purposes a follow-up to Hot Pursuit, but shinier. It bought something new to the fray in the way of Smartglass interaction, allowing someone to take control of the police helicopter, but it came across far more as playing it safe, rather than taking risks.
Though the done thing this year seemed to be twenty-second trailers that told you absolutely nothing about the title, yet expected you to be hyped, the one that seemed to have the best reaction was EA’s news that they’re bringing Star Wars Battlefront out of retirement, with most of the crowd whooping and hollering in equal measures of shock and glee. Receiving a slightly frostier reception was the third Dragon Age title, but I found myself turned off because if I’d wanted to watch people in stupid outfits lament in the rain I’d have gone to Download Festival instead. At some point I’m informed that there was a slew of EA Sports releases shown off, but apparently I dozed off into a form of coma triggered by pointless celebrity cameos, recovering briefly to laugh at the conviction of the phrase “true ball handling”.
As the presentation drew to a close, EA brought out the big guns with DICE showing off gameplay from the upcoming Battlefield 4. With a team of 64 players – Peter Moore included – they proceeded to absolutely stun the crowd with the ridiculously-massive scale of the map. Those around me swore in disbelief as soldiers shot the underground pillars to incapacitate the tank, and what was to follow defied expectations to the point that even now, I refuse to acknowledge that it was real. As the troops captured the flag at the top of a massive skyscraper, the building started to show signs of imminent collapse, prompting a mass exodus off the side of the building, upon which the camera turned to show individual windows shattering in the distance as the former eyesore crumbled into pieces. For all the talk of innovative AI, new engines and possibilities, that was the moment where it finally hit me. The next generation is finally here. Even the long-awaited announcement that Mirror’s Edge 2 is finally a reality – with all the aesthetic retained and not a single gun in sight – couldn’t rouse the crowd quite as much as Battlefield 4.
As the Ubisoft conference utterly passed everyone by, I reached the Sony conference fully aware that it was their conference to lose. For all the talk of the Xbox One’s “features”, Sony were left with a golden opportunity; all they had to do was announce that the Playstation 4 wouldn’t have any of those restrictions, and they’d have the audience eating out of the palm of their hands. First, we’d have to hear about how they’re not quite abandoning the Vita just yet with an announcement that they’d teamed up with Telltale Games to get the next Walking Dead episode “400 Days”, with the first season being available in a bundle around the same time. Apart from that, an errant logo for Tearaway and a mention of Arkham Origins: Blackgate, the Vita was conspicuously absent from the presentation, save for the announcement of various media features that would apply to it, the PS3 and the upcoming PS4. In fact, the PS3 received far more love than the struggling handheld, with another trailer for the latest critical darling The Last of Us, the soon-approaching Beyond: Two Souls and a trailer for Gran Turismo 6 that just made the cars look a bit wonkier than they were before. Though it’s been mopping up near-perfect scores seemingly everywhere, I actually found The Last of Us’ trailer making my interest in the title wane a little; it was a fairly bog-standard preview that didn’t contain anything as jaw-dropping as what they’d shown before. It’s probably a moot point considering its imminent release, but if that trailer was all I’d seen of Naughty Dog’s latest epic, I’d be severely wondering what all the hype is about.
Also disappointing was the footage of David Cage’s Beyond: Two Souls, which seemed entirely focused on her in army fatigues training to fight with big burly soldiers. As much as I hate Heavy Rain for its awful gameplay and ridiculous storytelling that contains plot-holes so large that even Mario couldn’t jump them, I at least appreciated that Beyond’s reveal trailer last year went straight for the magic mumbo-jumbo, rather than letting it surprise and disappoint the player in equal measure upon release. I knew that there’d be at least the occasional action sequence in Two Souls, but the fact that the entire trailer forewent any kind of intrigue or narrative and went straight to the punching did a lot to dampen my already-low expectations.
While I’m not a Batman fan, I found both of Rocksteady’s Arkham titles to be some of the best superhero games I’ve ever played, and expected Origins to look dull as dishwater. Fortunately for us all, but unfortunately for my wallet, it actually looked surprisingly good and had a decent premise behind it, though the Playstation-exclusive costumes seemed like a pointless coup unless you were a massive fan of ’60s Batman, something Jack Tretton apparently remembers all too well.
We finally came to what we’d been waiting for – any more news we could get on the Playstation 4, and while looks aren’t everything, the finally-unveiled design of the console already looked leaps and bounds ahead of the George Foreman grill that was its predecessor, and looked like a more tantalising piece of kit than the Xbox One, if only barely. A bigger announcement was that Sony was throwing the full force of its music and video services behind the console, allowing players unprecedented and exclusive access to the corporation’s giant catalogues of sounds and sights. While it seems like a complete no-brainer, it felt like a massive step to making the console an equally-viable entertainment hub compared to Microsoft’s offering, albeit without the complete infringement on your human rights.
We soon became privy to some of the console’s opening exclusives, with the steampunky The Order 1886, Killzone Shadowfall, Drive Club, Knack, and Infamous: Second Son all making appearances and looking like far better alternatives to Microsoft’s offerings earlier in the day – the new Infamous in particular went a long way to encouraging me to giving the series a shot. David Cage and Quantic Dream reared their heads again to show off The Dark Sorcerer, and although it made most of the audience laugh, I can’t help but wonder what the point is of it, or what it’s even about; it was entertaining, but it was also a load of absolute nothing.
Putting Sony further into everyone’s good books was the announcement that they were fully supporting indies for the upcoming Playstation, and any upstart developers can self-publish to the console – another coup in light of Microsoft’s demands that indies seek a publisher to get their works on the increasingly-unappetising Xbox One. As I said earlier, all Sony had to do was not be pointlessly unreasonable to developers and customers alike and they’d be raking in the kudos, and the fact that their full support of indies was one of the most popular announcements made it clear that Sony had already won the crowds over, and the exclusivity deal with Square-Enix for Final Fantasy 15 and Kingdom Hearts 3 surely didn’t hurt them either.
Some Assassin’s Creed 4 footage raised a couple of eyebrows as the title kept hanging, and eventually seemed to crash in the latter stages of the demo, whilst Watch_Dogs did everything it could to appeal to me as another Game of the Year candidate, although I’ll be buying it on the Wii U anyway. There were some more announcements in the way of a console-exclusive beta for The Elder Scrolls Online, some exclusive weapons for Mad Max and a long-term deal with Bungie to keep Destiny going for the next several years on the Playstation 4, but all of those paled in comparison to what had happened only minutes earlier.
Although it should have been saved until the dying moments of the conference, the defining moment of the conference – and possibly this year’s expo – was when Jack Tretton announced that the Playstation 4 would feature absolutely no DRM, no online authentication and the ability to trade in and lend all of your games as you saw fit, causing a wave of cheers, laughter and applause so intense that when Jack stopped himself continuing, to allow the applause to die, it started all over again. The atmosphere was so incredible that the announcement that you’d have to subscribe to Playstation Plus in order to play online multiplayer on the PS4 slipped under the radar, and even I failed to resist laughing and clapping along at Sony’s deft blow to their rivals.
Even the revelation that the PS4 would release for $399 and £350 ($100 and £80 cheaper than the technologically-inferior and consumer-restrictive Xbox One) couldn’t bring the house down to the same degree, but as I was sitting in that room, contributing to the praise being lavished upon Sony, I realised that Microsoft haven’t just shot themselves in the leg, but they’d blown the whole limb off. Despite all their announcements and all their exclusives, Sony managed to blow the place apart with just two simple announcements.
At that moment, Sony hadn’t just stolen the show, they’d outright won it.
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