It sounded like a mea culpa. Xbox boss Phil Spencer took to the stage at Microsoft's gigantic press conference, on the eve of the E3 video game show in Los Angeles, and told the thousands of attendees that this would all be about games.
Broadcast live over the internet to millions of viewers the world over, the message couldn't be more clear: last year's emphasis on the strength of the Xbox One as a multimedia and live TV platform was a mistake. This is a games machine that also does other stuff that no one here really wants to hear about.
At the end of a pummeling 90 minutes of game announcements and confirmations, Spencer took to the stage again and said, "thank you for making your voice heard, thank you for helping us shape the future of the new Xbox." Basically, it's what Microsoft has been saying for the last six months – we listened, we changed, now eat this.
So now that it's all about the games, what are the games actually like? Here are the key messages from the conference.
The big guns are firing
There were lots of huge Xbox console exclusives that we knew would figure highly, that did indeed, figure highly. There was a short Halo 5 demo, showing a clearly unhinged Master Chief flying a space bomb into an enormous craft. There's a suggestion the player will also take control of another Spartan investigating the series hero – more on that later. There was also Forza Horizon 2, complete with day/night cycles "dramatic" weather, the new Lamborghini, and the ability to set up driver clubs. It's out on September 30.
We also had a very lush, vibrant Fable Legends demo, showing four playable characters battling through a lush woodland. The key innovation is a new Villain role, which allows one player to take on the role of a Dungeon Master, arranging enemy traps and attacks. Oh and there was a new digitally distributed instalment of the Dance Central series, Dance Central Spotlight, which boasts a new technology allowing the game to feature new tracks much faster.
The most surprising exclusive, perhaps, was the new title from Japanese studio Platinum Games, responsible for Vanquish and Bayonetta, and now Scalebound, which appears to be a game about a dudebro who fights giant monsters while wearing fashionable headphones – although Observer writer Matt Kamen said, "it looks like a cross between Panzer Dragoon and Devil May Cry, and there is nothing wrong in that sentence". And heck this is Platinum Games!
Xbox One exclusive content
To back up its own brands, Microsoft also employed the familiar tactic of securing timed downloadable content exclusives on key multi-platform releases. It looks like the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare maps will hit Xbox One first, and both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Tom Clancy's The Division will have unspecified DLC content available on the Microsoft machine before PS3. In an interesting twist, the next game from Playdead, the creator of atmospheric platformer Limbo will appear first on Xbox One. Named Inside, the project looks to be another fascinatingly moribund endeavour, set in a dark Orwellian world of traipsing monochrome men trapped in a vast retro-futuristic edifice.
Voices from the past
There were some big retro treats for longtime Xbox fans. First, Dave Jones, founder of DMA design and Real-Time Worlds, made a surprise appearance to announce that his new studio is working on a re-boot of Crackdown. The cult open-world adventure will retain its stylised look with rich cell-shaded visuals, and a city that looks like it's constructed entirely out of '80s neon night club signs. Also, as the E3 demo showed one character driving a giant fuel tanker bomb into a building, bringing it crashing down in a super nova of fire, it seems there will be no attempt to add subtlty to the series. Thank goodness. No firm release date yet.
We're also going to see a return of Xbox title Phantom Dust, a card-based action strategy romp developed for the original Xbox by Panzer Dragoon creator, Yukio Futatsugi. With its emphasis on building decks of weapons and items, it's a timely return, considering the growing fandom around Heathstone and Netrunner. The project will be overseen by Ken Lobb, creative director on the Killer Instinct reboot.
As one last little retro nod, Rare's much-loved squirrel character Conker will be available in Project Spark, the game creation package. Which means you'll be able to make your own Conker's Other Bad Day.
Developers are getting the hang of this next-gen console business
The first wave of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles were hamstrung by cross-generational development regimes (supporting both the old PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the new consoles) and the usual lack of experience on new platforms. But the demos and trailers shown this morning in LA hint that developers are getting into their stride. A dramatic sequence from Assassin's Creed: Unity, set in revolutionary France, revelled in the blood, guts and chaos of the era. Shoing off the new co-op gameplay it had two players running through the streets of paris, taking out soldiers, before starting a riot that ends in a marquis being beheaded. There are sword fights, revolting peasants and a severed head on a stick, it's eyes flickering horribly. Beautiful stuff.
Elsewhere a short sequence from the next Lara Croft game Rise of the Tomb Raider (due out Winter 2015) had the young archeologist speaking to a psychiatrist about the experiences of the first game, while flashing to a variety of action sequences. And though bludgeoningly familiar right now, the demo for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which showed a street battle in a Futuristic Korean city, has super detailed visuals, including generous use of smoke and particle effects and a giant walking tank. Which is nice.
There was a lot of colour too – in Sunset Overdrive, of course, but also Crackdown and Fable Legends. Colour is good.
Obligatory indie section is obligatory
Yeah, but there was some good stuff in Microsoft's blipvert run-through of indie titles – all coming to the console courtesy of the ID@Xbox programme, which seeks to help smaller studios make and distribute games on the platform. Among them was Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time, Hyper Light Drifter, Might No 9 from Comcept, Fenic Rage, Aztez and Threes, which is just about the only game on this whole article that my wife would recognise. Add in Below from Capy Games, Inside from Playdead and the haunting-looking Ori and the Bling Forest from Moon Studios, which was given a longer trailer and looked gloomily gorgeous and you have a decent line-up to face Sony's own inevitable onslaught.
Phil Spencer promised games and he delivered lots and lots of games, some of them really rather beautiful to look at. It was a noisy, somewhat relentless event, that had some crowd-pleasers, some interesting smaller projects and a few glimpses at what the big publishers are pulling out of the development bag for the second wave of next-gen consoles (well, they're current-gen now, of course, but that is way too confusing). The fact that gamers knew they could expect a little Halo, some Forza and a smattering of Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, as well as one or two retro returnees, meant that the atmosphere at the cavernous Galen Center never quite reached fever pitch. Or maybe it just couldn't be heard abover the bellowing sound system which was turned up past eleven to "apocalypse".
Really, Microsoft did what it needed to do, it showed its core audience that it still loves them, and it has plenty of games with guns and swords and dragons, and you won't have to wave at the screen or shout "Xbox: make it stop". Microsoft had to seduce its fanbase all over again, and anyone outside of that demographic may have felt slightly overlooked or under-addressed. "Indie" definitely is a part of this vision, and there are snatches of real innovation, but for this E3, there's a feeling we need more than a glimpse at something new. We need original IP from the vast mega-studios that stretches these big, powerful machines, and stretches what we mean by games.
Or maybe that's just me.
Microsoft has done enough, easily enough. But in this explosive and unpredictable industry is enough really ever enough? Over to you, Sony.
• Keith Stuart attended E3 on a press trip with other journalists, in which travel and accommodation costs were met by Microsoft. For information on the Guardian's policy covering paid-for trips, please see the editorical code or this article on transparency and trust.
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