E3 2017: Rating Microsoft’s conference

Microsoft wasted no time getting to the point with its E3 conference. Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been talking about ‘winning’ the console war since his appointment, and if Microsoft is going to have any chance of succeeding in that goal this generation, it’s time to start making some headway. Everyone in the audience knew this was all about Project Scorpio, Microsoft’s upcoming mid-generation super console, and sure enough, once the lights went down, they were immediately treated to a sizzle trailer for the new high-performance beast.

Alleged leaks leading up to the show put a lot of last-minute money on Microsoft sticking with the Scorpio moniker. A code name has never made the transition to production unchanged though, and that proved to be the case again here, as the nondescript Xbox One X name was unveiled. Does the new name allow the console to sit nicely within the existing family, cementing the idea that this is very much current—not next—gen? Yes. Is there potential for confusion for those buying the console who aren’t familiar with recent Xbox naming conventions? Also yes. Your average parent may struggle to differentiate between the Xbox One’s siblings, and as those customers are a huge part of Microsoft’s target market, it’s hardly a consumer-friendly move. I’d have kept Scorpio, a name that’s picked up more than enough recognition and cachet over the months since it’s initial leak to be viable. But that’s just me.

Despite Microsoft giving an exclusive technical reveal to Digital Foundry some weeks ago, a move many thought was a shrewd way to get the figures out of the way early and make E3 all about the games, they just couldn’t resist trotting out those dry specifications yet again. This is the most powerful console ever built (which, by the way, isn’t that unique,—there’s at least one every generation), but repeating the phrase ‘six teraflops!’ again and again, doesn’t make it any less abstract for the general gaming public. I suppose for Microsoft, that phrase has become shorthand for ‘look! Better than Sony!’, but as they may find out, powerful doesn’t always equal better for many gamers.
It took until the end of the presentation for the One X’s price to be finally revealed: $499 is a hefty chunk, and makes me wonder who the console is really for. It’s cheap for such cutting-edge hardware, but pick Microsoft’s team, and you’re tied to its ecosystem, something that will put off PC gamers looking to upgrade. PS4 owners (especially those with a Pro) are unlikely to move over—the One X’s 4K gaming is already achievable at the higher end of Sony’s lineup, albeit in a less powerful overall package. Those without a 4K TV are unlikely to take the plunge, too (there are benefits in plain ol’ HD, but hardly worth $500). It all leads me to the conclusion that the One X will find its market primarily with existing Xbox One owners (a theme running through the rest of the presentation) looking to upgrade. Whether that target audience is wide enough remains to be seen.

Perhaps the only genuine surprise about the Scorp—sorry—the One X was the hardware itself, which, though obviously sharing the same genealogy as the rest of its family (read: it’s a squarish black box), is actually the smallest Xbox yet, looking positively diminutive beside its controller.

Back to entirely predictable twists. After a few more minutes of technobabbling, Microsoft used its Forza license to showcase the first look at some One X gameplay. Also unsurprisingly, Forza Motorsport 7’s lovely-looking cars looked lovelier and more realistic than ever racing round a dusty track in 4K at 60fps. Telling those in-game models apart from real cars is honestly becoming difficult, and the game ran like butter. Perhaps tellingly, though, 60fps didn’t get another mention during the rest of the presentation. Whether this is a performance limitation or a choice on the part of developers to limit disparity between versions, remains a mystery. One thing’s for certain: there was a real car on stage. A Porsche. That happened.

Then began a wave of genuinely interesting stuff, starting with probably the demo of the conference for me, the surprising reveal of a new game in the Metro series. This section of gameplay showed a player venturing through a dark passageway, then emerging into a crumbling, post-apocalyptic open space, whilst battling some nasty looking creatures and indulging in some survival-ish antics along the way. If Metro: Exodus looks anything like as gorgeous as this on release next year, fan of the series or not—it’s going to have your attention.

Even by the series’ standards, Assassin’s Creed: Origins was a terribly-kept secret. Imagine how much impact a big reveal of the Ancient Egyptian setting would have been if they’d managed to keep it under (burial) wraps. A gameplay demo showed off mechanics that are new to the series, but not so new to every single other Ubisoft game of the last couple of years. Skill trees, a loot system, and even a scouting drone—sorry, pet eagle—were all shown off, as was the stunning, surprisingly colorful art direction. There was also a noticeable frame-rate chug during the footage that fans will hope is ironed-out before the Fall launch

Then came PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s quite the coup for Microsoft to bring the Steam sensation exclusively to its family of consoles, even if it is only for what looks like a limited time. It’s super trendy right now, so jumping on the hype while it's still fresh seems like an extremely sensible thing to do.

Other game highlights included a clearer look at Sea of Thieves, with an extended gameplay trailer chock-full of Rare’s characteristic wry humor, giving a better than ever feel for what we’ll actually be doing in-game, even if it still kept much under wraps. Middle Earth: Shadow of War still looks like it’s going to do a great job building on the previous game’s pure sense of brutal fun. Crackdown 3 is not only still a thing, but it’s a thing that’s coming in November. Terry Crews did some shouting about it, so it must be true. Aside from his appearance, the trailer was otherwise forgettable. Flashy, sure, but showcasing none of the revolutionary cloud-based destruction that has been promised. Oh, and indie darling Cuphead’s release was finally dated (September 29th).
In another move which seems geared towards pleasing the existing Xbox community rather than bringing new fans to the fold, Original Xbox backward compatibility was announced, Crimson Skies was the only game shown off, but it’s coming this year, so we’ll get more info soon. This got a huge cheer from the crowd, so someone must want this, I suppose.

The conference ended with perhaps its biggest success: Anthem, EA premiered Bioware’s new IP on Microsoft’s stage, and boy, did it ever look great. With gameplay running smoothly on One X hardware (but again, noticeably not 60fps), the lush open world already looks incredible—the perfect place to run quests, pick up loot, and just generally do Destiny-type things. Because there’s no doubt about the influence of Bungie’s game here. I only hope some of Bioware’s trademark deep story and character finds its way in there, too.
Though lacking some wow-factor (probably due to so much of the conference hinging on the big console reveal, an element we already knew so much about), overall, I think Microsoft can be reasonably happy. This was definitely an improvement on last year’s showing. Phil Spencer put in a reliably assured performance and there were plenty of games on display (42 games, 22 exclusive were the numbers bandied around by Microsoft, although both full and timed exclusives were included, and many of the total were only seen in a brief glimpse in a combined ID@Xbox sizzle reel). Also, as is usually the case with Microsoft, a large percentage of the games are coming either this year or early next. As it stands, the Xbox slate is still light on exclusive content, but there will be a feeling of ‘job done’ after finally showing the new console in its entirety.
Now they just have to sell a few.

Rating: 7/10

Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.