Last year, at E3’s traditional battle of the platform-holders, Microsoft presented Sony with the most almighty of open goals. Tying itself in knots after an ill-advised bid to position the Xbox One as some sort of entertainment hub which incidentally played games, it floundered in the spotlight.
This year, Microsoft redressed the balance to an extent, by concentrating on games to the exclusion of all else. Which meant Sony would have to work harder to come out ahead again. And boy, did it work hard – displaying, in the process, a single-minded confidence which contrasted markedly with Microsoft’s reactivity.
Sony was happy to talk about hardware and non-core services, but made sure that everything was underpinned by some decent game announcements and a few left-field surprises. There were plenty of games that the PlayStation faithful have longed for and a huge array of mouth-watering cross-platform titles backed by deals offering timed exclusives and extra content for PS4 versions.
Sony left E3 2013 feeling ultra confident, and it started E3 2014 in exactly the same mood.
The show-stoppers and watercooler games
The big finale of Sony’s press conference saw the first footage of the game that every PS4 owner desperately wants to play – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. We’ll have to wait until 2015 for it, but with the suggestion in both the title and the snippets of in-game dialogue ("Let's do this one last time") that this is the end of the series provided the show with the perfect dramatic climax. It's early stuff though, with just a few moments of Nathan waking up in a jungle setting surrounded by skeletons locked within swinging cages.
That wasn’t necessarily the most desirable trailer shown during the packed event. The ambitious indie game that dominated the hype at last year's Spike video game awards, was back to incite awe once again. And indeed, No Man’s Sky from Guildford studio Hello Games, is a truly exciting prospect – a procedurally generated multiplayer space exploration game, in which planets spring into life as players discover them. Every participant will start on a different planet, and each planet seemed to have its own art-style and ecology. We can’t yet tell what its gameplay will be like, but it looks spectacular, and undoubtedly establishes a new playing field for epic game design.
LittleBigPlanet 3 also drew appreciation from the massed ranks, noticeably featuring three new protagonists to accompany Sackboy, and an understandable emphasis on co-operative play. Elsewhere, Sony may have played the Japanese solidarity card as a means of ensuring that Bloodborne, a new RPG from much-revered Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki, will be a PS4 exclusive. The Order: 1886 also looked impressively gothic, although gameplay-wise, it appeared to lean more towards survival horror than all-out action. It was perceived as solid rather than spectacular, but an interesting new PS4 exclusive none the less.
Making a splash with non-exclusives
Sony opened its press conference with a long look at one of this year’s most anticipated games, Activision’s ground-breaking shooter-meets-MMO Destiny. Even though the Bungie-developed space opera will also come out on the current-gen consoles and Xbox One, Sony President and Group CEO Andrew House revealed that PlayStation 3 and 4 owners will get their hands on it first – thanks to a beta programme launching on July 17 – and PlayStation 4 owners will be able to participate in its alpha programme from Thursday 19 June.
The third-party games that Sony chose to showcase – most of which came with some promise of exclusive content or first crack at downloadable additions – couldn’t have been more blue-chip. Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4, set in the fictional, apparently Himalayan, kingdom of Kyrat, looked stunning, and introduced two-player co-op to the mix. Astonishingly, we heard that you will be able to invite your PSN friends to join in the fun even if they don’t own the game.
Mortal Kombat X looked even more gloriously twisted than any of its predecessors. Batman: Arkham Knight appeared easily able to live up to the hype that surrounds it, with glimpses at villains Penguin and a truly terrifying Scarecrow. Plus, Sony engineered a genuine third-party coup by lifting the lid on a PS4 version of Grand Theft Auto V and revealing that you’ll be able to import save-games for it from PS3s and Xbox 360s. Cunningly, it was left unclear on the night whether the title would also be coming to Xbox One and PC (it will) giving Sony an initial, if rather cynical, early boost.
The indies are growing up
Microsoft impressed earlier with a few great-looking indie games, but Sony has busied itself with skimming off the cream of the indie scene in recent years, and you could see that policy paying real dividends at its E3 2014 press conference.
A gorgeous-looking, deeply stylised effort from new developer Pixel Opus called Entwined – with an interesting twin-stick control scheme – looked thoroughly original. Journey’s art director Matt Nava emerged with a new developer called Giant Squid and a game called Abzu that looks like an underwater take on Journey, which will be published by 505 Games. And a bona fide retro classic will re-emerge on the PlayStation Network, in the form of Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango. This drew one of the loudest cheers of the night, showing the industry's continued affection for the great LucasArts adventures of the nineties.
It wasn’t all games
Sony didn’t shrink from unveiling some hardware elements for the PS4. It showed the Project Morpheus VR headset although, disappointingly, it didn’t give any indication as to when it might go on sale or how much it might cost. It also confirmed that PlayStation TV, an add-on box which will stream PS4 games to any TV in your house (an increasingly attractive proposition in the modern, multi-screen household), is coming to the US, Canada and Europe. It will, at least in the US, have an eye-catchingly low price-point – $99, although who knows how that will translate into pounds. Also, a white PS4 will be made available as part of a Destiny bundle.
Andrew House also revealed a forthcoming TV series, exclusive to PlayStation 4, based around the popular comic book, Powers. In a similar model to Netflix and House of Cards, Sony wants us to know it is serious about using PS4 as a venue for exclusive "linear" entertainment.
Some unanswered questions remain
There was some news about PlayStation Now, the streaming service that emerged from Sony’s purchase of Gaikai, which will effectively act as the PS4’s backwards compatibility engine. But it was a bit vague, at least as far as the UK is concerned. PlayStation Now will go into beta-testing on July 31 on the PS4, but only in the US; a rather woolly statement about that programme also involving the testing of various subscription models suggests Sony hasn’t yet decide how much it will charge for the system, or whether those with PS3 game disks will be able to play them on the PS4 for free.
But it feels a tad unfair to criticise Sony for any omissions and evasions, as there was a tangible feeling that it had crammed so much into the press conference that some things would have to be left out. But the overall message was clear: the recent fallowish period, which has seen the launch of precious few compelling PS4 games, will soon give way to a feverish programme of releases which the company hopes will prove irresistable to those still on the next-gen fence.
This was never going to be the super-powered success story of E3 2013, which saw Sony bludgeoning its console opponent. Now, it seems, the two console giants are battling on the same ground, with comparable output and similar strengths and weaknesses. It's all subjective now, all down to which games players prefer. Listening to the chatter at the end of Monday, journalists and developers were arguing over which was the stronger line-up. That shows the console battle has matured. "It's all about the games" looks set to be the catch phrase of this year's exhibition.
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