Some might say that Microsoft’s press conference was predictable, or lacked the excitement and surprises of previous years, but that is to miss the genius of its iterative approach to advancing the Xbox 360. What started as a game console has since evolved into a multifaceted living room product.
Even before any new features announced at E3 2012, it had the ability to access Twitter and Facebook and a wide variety of live and on-demand TV functions like Amazon Instant Video, ESPN, HBO Go, Hulu Plus and Netflix (with iPlayer, Sky, Lovefilm and 4OD also featuring in the UK). This was further extended at the press event with a raft of features that not only extend the variety of content but also the number of ways you can interact with the Xbox:
- Better with Kinect games that make further use of voice control, including making plays in Madden, calling to teammates in FIFA and distracting enemies in the newly announced Splinter Cell Blacklist.
- A new Xbox Music streaming service with a focus on accessing audio by musical classification.
- Nike+ Training that combines the Kinect camera and Nike+ community to further track and incentivize your exercise.
- SmartGlass controls that enable you to use tablet and smart phone devices to control the Xbox and pass information between the two in a similar fashion to the Wii U controller.
- The addition of Internet Explorer that takes advantage of the Xbox’s wide range of controls (Kinect, Controller or SmartGlass) to make living room browsing less painful.
It’s no easy thing to change a product so substantially and take your existing users with you. In most other consumer disciplines it would involve new hardware of some sort, giving the pubic a chance to pick and choose which features to embrace. Microsoft’s approach means it takes more flack from those who don’t approve of its investment in certain features or experiences, but the result is much better value for its customers — particularly when the 360 is used by a variety of people in a family.
For me it was jarring to see just how violent many of the big blockbuster games Microsoft showed at E3 have become, but I could still appreciate that this was an E3 press conference of genuine breadth. While I may not want to shoot/stab/decapitate quite so many people I understand that there are many other (core) gamers who do. The presence of these games in its press conference certainly underlined its commitment to big blockbuster experiences:
- Call of Duty Black Ops 2 first live gameplay
- Splinter Cell Blacklist announcement
- Gears of War Judgement announcement
Beyond these two tent-poles of multimedia and hardcore games, Microsoft pulled out a handful of experiences that were genuinely hard to pigeonhole. Firstly Forza Horizon, which takes the racing mechanics of the Forza franchise and brings them to bear on an easy to access open world. From the audience’s reaction you could tell this was a game that excited racing fans, but it also got me hotly anticipating spending time with my older kids on the game.
Then, less obviously, there is Halo 4. While at first this appears to be a hard-core game, for me it stands out as an experience that can genuinely escape that sort of categorization. Unlike other shooters the focus here is on the moment of encounter with an artificial enemy who is as believable a foe as a human player.
Whereas the new Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 did its best to be bigger, louder and inevitably more violent than previous titles in the series, Halo 4 has set itself the task of recreating those believable enemy characters and is a very different proposition. It’s this focus that has allowed me to more comfortably recommend it to family gamers. Seeing the more cell-shaded visuals and fresh enemies during the Halo 4 gameplay video was exciting not because they were something new to shoot, but because of the rich memories of cat and mouse exchanges with Elites, Brutes, and Grunts of past games.
Then there are a couple of Kinect titles that first appear to be easy to pigeonhole, until you look at them in detail and realize there is more going on than meets the eye. Kinect Journey takes the hard core world of Albion and brings it to a younger audience, with lower age rating, and some of the most ambitious Kinect controls I’ve seen to date.
Wrecknation combines Angry Birds’ destructive goodness with the Kinect controller’s analogue feel. This seems like something just for families before you realize how flexible this control system is. Not only is the pulling back of the catapult one of those Kinect moments where you simply have to mimic real life, but being able to use the controller to deftly adjust/steer/spin/fly the various types of projectiles gives the game substantial depth.
I came away from the Xbox press conference looking forward to finding out more about a whole range of new interactions, games and media possibilities. This is not dissimilar from previous years, but I think it has taken me until now to realize that Microsoft is serious about the broad new direction for the Xbox 360. While there was no mention of a new console, reading this writing on the wall painted a clear picture of what that will look like at its (likely) unveiling at next year’s E3.