E3 2012: Microsoft’s Press Conference

We’re here at the Galen Center in Los Angeles and we’re waiting for things to get started. We were told by someone at Microsoft that the opening to this show is going to be quite incredible. Perhaps Halo 4? It would fit the way Halo 4 picks up after Halo 3 and that Halo 4 ended last years conference to open up this year’s. Could work, even though a little birdie told us that the Halo demo is in fact coming later in the presentation. Interesting.

Of course, Gotye is playing on the sound system, and we were listening to Fun’s “We Are Young” before. Interesting tidbit: YouTube “Tiffany Alvord” for her cover of the song along with some friends. Incredible stuff.

Okay, back to the official presentation. We’re about to get started. And the lights are going down…

Halo 4 is actually first up! The audio is super loud in here, but we’ll deal with it. This game is looking fantastic. We see a massive ship flying through the sky, right over Master Chief who, by the way, looks better than ever. We guess cryostasis is actually a pretty restful way to sleep. We see a couple of covenant, the Chief snipes them out, and then an Elite comes rushing at him. But it evaporates with a red light out of nowhere. It’s incredible.

The game then switches to an almost Metroid-like game, but in a a very Halo way. You see these creatures, almost like the covenant, but Cortana – yes, she is still by your side – tells you that they are not. They’re actually inorganic creatures built on artificial intelligence. They are the forerunner. 343 Industries shows off some new tactical options; weapons that use magnetics or perhaps magic of some sort to float and put themselves together. They’re called the Light Rifle and the Scatter Shot, and they too, are incredible.

The demo is nearly over, but there is this wild sense that 343 Industries has cojones. And big ones. This is clearly a Halo game, but it’s wildly different. The forerunner are these orange-and-yellow creatures in this brand new universe, with familiar Halo gameplay, but an all-new lease on life. Master Chief falls to the ground while still in first person, but this isn’t a quicktime event, so there might be some new in-game elements at work here, too. This is the best way to start the show, and nothing can possibly follow it. Or can it?

Well, next up, we see Splinter Cell: Blacklist. The game title, leaked last week, is probably our proudest moment at the show so far because it starts off with the words “From Ubisoft Toronto”. We give massive cheers and then see a game that does nothing short of blow us away.

The demo begins near the Iran-Iraq border, where Fourth Echelon – remember, Third Echelon is no more – has located a terrorist leader. The game looks phenomenal, and while we can tell this is the Splinter Cell we’ve been waiting for because Maxime Béland, the series’ Creative Director is up on stage, it doesn’t look familiar yet. Then, some marks pop-up over some terrorists’ heads and Sam Fisher executes them with the precision he is known for, and brutally tortures another person in the process.

Sam Fisher is actually in charge of Fourth Echelon now, as directed by the President – he saved her ass in the last game, so that makes sense – so we wonder how that will play out as he is still clearly on the field. Without going into too much more detail, Sam has acquired a bunch of new tricks. He still marks and executes, but it all happens with much more finesse and a lot quicker. The game isn’t quite a run-and-gun shooter, but it is even faster than it was in Conviction, which we won’t be able to truly judge until we actually get our hands on it.

Ubisoft has clearly taken some cues from its other franchises, most notably Assassin’s Creed, as there is quite a bit of climbing walls in Blacklist. The demo shows Fisher climbing walls in a very parkour-like fashion more than a couple of times, and while it does look amazing, we did actually think we were looking at their other franchise for a few seconds.

And as Ubisoft said at last year’s press conference, the game will get better with Kinect. Expect Splinter Cell: Blacklist in Spring 2013, which means November 2013 if Ubi’s usual delays hold true to this series as well.

The conference continues on with EA Sports coming out to demo FIFA and Madden, along with none other than Joe Montana. He shows off Madden’s new Kinect features which work well in concept, but produc a lot of lag. It would simply be much easier to use a controller, as we’ve seen with most of Kinect’s offerings. Montana is actually using a controller as well as Kinect, which does make Madden one of the first games with a good mix of both technologies, but it’s just too buggy at this stage.

Next up is a trailer for Fable: The Journey which, despite previous rumblings, is not on rails at all. The game does look somewhat interesting, but given the fact that we’ve played through three Fables to this point, and they’ve each let us down – progressively less, mind you – up until the most recent Fable Heroes, we’re just not that excited about it.

We’re looking at Gears of War Judgment in the form of a small teaser trailer. The whole thing runs maybe about forty seconds or so and looks like a real-life version of the Game Informer cover that leaked last week. Other than that, we’ve got no new details and Cliffy B isn’t on stage.

In fact, he’s so not on stage that we’re moving right on into Forza Horizon. Now this is a stunning racing game. It doesn’t look Gran Turismo 5 good or anything, but the effects are what take the cake on this game. The lighting, especially the lens flare from the sun through the mountains at dawn, looks especially delicious. We can’t help but wonder, though: how will this game be different, and more importantly better, than Forza Motorsport 3?

We’re looking at Phil Spencer now talking about a bunch of Xbox Live Dashboard enhancements. We get a new dash every year it seems, and while we’re not getting anything brand new this year, we are getting a ton of new content. So let’s make this quick: Paramount. Simpler Bing search. Internet Explorer. UFC. NFL. MLB. NBA.

SmartGlass is next up, and it’s unfortunately not the streaming service we thought it was. Rather, it is a technology that we’ve had for quite a while on things like Netflix and with PS3 CrossPlay functionality. Say you start watching a movie on your tablet, pause halfway through, and get home to finish the movie. Well, with SmartGlass, the Xbox will let you take over where you left off, and the tablet becomes a sort of secondary screen for additional content like the cast list, movie reviews, IMDb information, and the like.

Games can also utilize this functionality on any device, including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone and tables, where additional content is displayed on screen. Maps in Skyrim, for example. Or Waypoint data in Halo 4. The only worry we have is that we’ll need twelve different apps for twelve different games. The way Microsoft should plan this out is to have one app for each operating system that is the grandfather SmartGlass app for all content. This way, you don’t need to rely on developers to create a secondary app for three or more different devices just to make use of the technology. Microsoft needs a slick SDK on the developer backend to add content and let developers focus on the experience, not debugging twelve different versions of the complimentary experience to the game.

Internet Explorer for Xbox just got announced. ‘Nuff said.

Then we have Tomb Raider. It’s a wildly different demo than we saw last year, but in the same Lara Croft way. It is still stunning in its depth, and you can tell the game is built with an ancient sense of care. We’re not sure what that means either, but the game looks phenomenal. Lara is shooting her bow and arrow as a main way to take care of her enemies, and there is a real sense of lag as she pulls back on the bow to release her arrow.

There are other interesting tricks she uses, too. At one point, she fires off a flaming arrow into a puddle of fuel to explode a fuel tank and eliminate a few baddies at once. At another point, a standard arrow cuts a rope that releases a bunch of barrels to take out another few. Tomb Raider has always had a bit of Rube Goldberg in its puzzle solving, but it seems developer Crystal Dynamics is bringing that to combat and enemies as well.

Lara gets brutally assaulted as she grabs a parachute and – yet again – narrowly escapes death. She flies through the forest and falls to the ground with the same thud as the first demo we saw last year. This game is still brutal, and while the release date has slipped to 2013, we’re expecting one of the best games we’ve ever played out of it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out to be one of those six-hour campaigns.

Resident Evil 6 developers from Japan arrive on stage to show off their latest game. The demo finishes, and we’re left with a sense of incompleteness. The game wasn’t shown off at its best stage, we hope. Running animations look far too choppy and overdone, while the zombies have horrible textures. The audio in the game isn’t anything fantastic either, although we’ve certainly heard worse.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone come on stage to show off their franchise game The Stick of Truth. We’re not huge South Park fans – okay, we’re not fans at all – but these guys actually impress us. They talk about some issues with development, getting the feel of the game right, making everything look like the unique style of the television show, and make fun of Microsoft’s SmartGlass in the process. We won’t play it, but we know more than two people that this game made happy today.

Dance Central 3 logo is emblazoned on the mini-screens around the Galen Center at this point and we’re greeted by an interview of Usher on the big screen. Until he says that anyone can do the moves in the game, and proves it by showing up to do them himself! That’s right, Usher shows up to do a full-fledged single-song concert featuring dance moves exclusively on Dance Central 3! This is a real treat and one of the reasons we really like Microsoft’s showing. Not because of Usher, per se, but because of the surprise and excitement he generates.

Usher rushes off stage after his performance and Don Mattrick joins us once again to introduce the final title of the show: Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Of course, we’re expecting this one, and while what we get is great, we’re not giving you a full and detailed walkthrough of it because, well, it actually sucks. There is nothing here that sounds like a new Call of Duty entry. With Modern Warfare 3 from last year, we saw laser cutting steel fences underwater, fight jets crashing into aircraft carriers, and boats flying through the air and crashing into helicopters. In this Black Ops II demo, we see shooting, some duck and cover, a little more shooting, and then a fade to black. Fine, it all takes place at the LA Convention Center where E3 is about to go down, but it’s just shooting.

It’s interesting to note that Kudo Tsunoda, the Godfather of Kinect was not around at the show as Kinect wasn’t really a big part of the briefing at all. It seems that Microsoft finally understands that we don’t want to see a bunch of kids running around to Once Upon a Monster. Other titles that were notably absent was Harry Potter for Kinect and any real semblance of a Gears of War Judgment introduction.

But how did Microsoft do overall? Well, we haven’t seen the other two big conferences yet, and while it seems that Microsoft always has the biggest show and gets the best party out of their briefing, the games didn’t really come alongside the show. They led the show with two behemoth franchises, Halo and Splinter Cell, and brushed off a half-assed Black Ops II as their closer. Sony has to do some work to beat out their show, but we’ve got a good feeling that they’ll be able to do it by introducing some new hardware tech and a Vita price drop.