Not Live From E3 – The Microsoft Conference

Entertainment. Entertainment. Entertainment. Entertainmentdeargodpleasekillmenow!

In stark contrast to Sony’s conference Microsoft began their proceedings by going straight to a video for Halo 4, like they were terrified the audience’s stunted attention spans would otherwise wander to a discarded tin can unless they got a dose of Master Chief right away. After a live action theatrical snippet, featuring lots of silly hats and uniforms liberally borrowed from the Federation in Starship Troopers, we got some gameplay with the series’ much-beloved lead space marine archetype fighting Covenant forces on some jungle planet somewhere. An actual spherical planet formed from cosmic dust the way God intended and not an artificial construct shamelessly stolen from Larry Niven. Revolutionary in every definition except the one that actually matters.

So yeah, more Covenant. Whoop-de-doo. Fortunately there were only about four of them and the last one got taken out by one of the game’s brand spanking new enemies: a kind of robot attack dog with glowing orange eyes described by Master Chief’s AI ally Cortana as “some sort of defence AI”. Don’t get too technical on us Cortana. Anyhow shortly after this first encounter a new bipedal enemy, resembling General Grievous if he got sucked into Tron and spat back out again, teleports in to mess with Master Chief Petty Sergeant McGruffvoice in one-on-one combat. These new enemies and their weapons, which you can of course take from their disintegrating corpses to use yourself, are supposedly something to do with the Forerunners, something Halo fans are no doubt furiously stimulating themselves to orgasm over as I type. Me? I’m really not all that fussed, although I still live in hope for Halo: the Ken Loach version.

Don Mattrick then took the stage to greet everyone and reel off some stats before going out of his way to avoid mentioning the word “games” whenever he could. It was all “entertainment” in this conference. Entertainment this and entertainment that until everything he said melted into a long, slow demonic susurrus of “entertainment”. Even Don’s official job title, “President of Interactive Entertainment”, has that damnable word in it. Look, we get it Microsoft. You want the 360 to be considered an all-in-one multimedia joy box instead of a black or white box you just play games on. That doesn’t mean you need to beat us around the face with it like a particularly obnoxious wet fish.

"I want him in the games until he dies playing. End of Line."

Don vacated the stage for two Ubisoft peeps to show off triple-A “entertainment” product Splinter Cell: Blacklist, due Spring 2013. Sam Fisher is back again and this time he’s faffing about on the Iran-Iraq border, where he’s taken to channelling Kiefer Sutherland in 24 by viciously beating up Arabic chaps while shouting at them. In the gameplay demo on show Sam was in some dusty sheepherders village in the mountains shooting people in the face and using every resource of The Fourth Echelon to callously blow the shit out of a load of brown people. For a series with its origins in the stealth genre this latest instalment looks depressingly un-stealthy and the tools Sam has at his disposal appear to do nearly all the work for him. Still, I suppose it’s always nice to have some options.

From here the conference took a downward plunge into an abyss of bland Kinect compliance, with Madden NFL 13 and Fifa 13 both touted as featuring Kinect support. Be still my beating heart. Kinect functionality in Fifa 13 has spawned a rudimentary Alex Ferguson simulator within the game like a benign growth that allows you to substitute players, change tactics and instruct players with voice commands. You can also swear like a trooper and elicit amusing response from the commentators. NFL 13 has similar voice commands only instead of calling the referee a wanker you’re shouting “HUT!” and other terminology only Americans understand. Overall however I got the impression neither game really benefits significantly from Kinect functionality, like most games with Kinect support.

Things picked up a bit with some more game trailers starting with Fable: The Journey, which features lots of flailing at a screen pretending to throw fireballs and a downright criminal lack of horse. Seriously, where has the horse gone? Peter Molyneux’s vision of man and equine co-operation has been ruined! After that was the trailer for Gears of War: Judgement, being developed by Bulletstorm creators People Can Fly, with an awesome choice of music in A Perfect Circle’s “Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums.” And that’s the only thing in the trailer I gave a single damn about. Rounding off this trio of trailers was one for Forza Horizon  that consisted entirely of car porn for Top Gear fans to wank over.

After that brief giddy high things sank back into the mire for more talk about “entertainment” from Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of the Online Audience Business Group at Microsoft Corp. “When we talk about entertainment,” he said, “it’s not just movies and the games you’ve seen. It’s music too!” No shit! By now the conference had come to resemble a real life implementation of the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange, except rather than instilling in me a pathological aversion to violence I just felt a bit queasy whenever I heard the word “entertainment.” Furthering the hell of entertainment was Xbox Music, aka Zune Music with a different name and a fresh lick of paint. There was talk of a library of 30 million tracks available on the 360 as well as on Windows Phones, Windows 8 PCs, and Tablets, but my brain had begun to calcify by this point. The advert for it was your standard slick corporate affair showing people jumping around like tosspots, or pointing at things and laughing the way a psychopath might point and laughs at the shivering, helpless victims incarcerated in his basement dungeon.

We haven't forgotten you Clopsy, or whatever your name was!

A grinning bellend from Nike then manifested on stage like a leering Incubus from The Pit to announce that “if you have a body, you’re an athlete.” Great! I’ll keep pigging out on Twiglets, cakes and Monster Energy then, safe in the knowledge my basic corporeal existence puts me on the same level as Usain Bolt. This beaming android’s mission wasn’t just to tell us all something patently fucking stupid though, oh no. It was also there to announce that Nike were partnering with Microsoft for Nike+ Kinect Training, an Orwellian physical punishment regime that among other things “will remind you by your phone everytime you’re due for a workout.” Look, I’ve nothing against physical fitness and I’m all for inclusion when it comes to gaming. It’s great that people with a fetish for athletics are being catered for by our typically sedentary pastime. I just don’t think it’s all that relevant to actual gaming and games, which I thought was the primary focus of E3. Sorry, it’s all “entertainment” now isn’t it. Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment! Keep repeating that until you feel an overpowering urge to smash your skull open on the nearest wall. If anyone asks why you can tell them you’re an athlete.

Smartglass was a pleasant and comforting surprise, genuinely interesting and with serious potential for games with its promise of greater integration between your Xbox and any smartphones or tablets you happen to already own. Some examples given were being able use your smartphone as a remote control for your 360, or start watching a film on your tablet and then resume watching it on your TV when you get home. Another example was was watching Game of Thrones and being able to see exactly where other characters were at that precise moment on your tablet. Concept footage of Smartglass’ use for games wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring but the potential is obvious to anyone with a working brain.

Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot with a “new and mature direction” was featured next, with nary a tomb to be seen and generally seeming like a fucked-up version of Deliverance with a teenage Lara Croft in the Burt Reynolds role. The amount of physical abuse poor Lara received from antagonists and the environments was absolutely staggering and made for a rather unsettling viewing experience. I haven’t heard a woman scream and moan in so much sheer physical agony since I last watched David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. After “Lara Croft: A series of unfortunate and painful encounters” came a bunch more trailers for some other games before an action-packed demonstration of Resident Evil 6. Sporting enough explosions to satisfy Michael Bay and zombies so numerous they feel more like scenery than any actual threat, the demo succeeded brilliantly in snatching any hopes of a return to the series’ horror roots and pounding them into a thin slurry.

Life is pain. Then you inherit a country mansion with Chris Barrie as your butler.

The sweet and charming Alex Ruiz then came out to show off the equally sweet and charming Wreckateer, in a presentation ruined by the grim dictatorship of the autocue. Sod knows why they couldn’t just let her sell the game herself in her own way. I’m certain she could have done a far better job than whatever PR robot hammered her clunky, unnatural script together. The subsequent trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth was comically epic in all the right ways, capturing the look of the TV show so perfectly it could be a trailer for another South Park movie. Matt Stone and Trey Parker delivered the best speech of the conference by instantly ripping the piss out of earlier proceedings and refusing to be shackled by the autocue. Take note PR drones. Giving speakers some freedom doesn’t immediately cause the sky to fall.

Usher strutted onto to the stage in a very late musical interlude to show off some damned impressive dancing if you don’t mind me saying so. However you feel about his music – it’s not really my cup of tea – you can’t deny the man’s got some moves. Don Mattrick then returned back on stage to preach more about Microsoft’s dystopian vision of an “Entertainment!” future before closing proceedings with the trailer for Black Ops 2, which left me in the awkward position of being interested by a new Call of Duty game. Black Ops 2’s “15 minutes into the future” sci fi theme gives the game a distinct character and really shows off what Treyarch can do given the chance to make the franchise their own.

In summary the Microsoft conference can best be described as a handful of sparkling gems in a puddle of grey, indistinct paste. I’m not saying it was horrible or “the worst conference ever”. It was just hopelessly bland. The exciting stuff on display looked great, was relevant to my interests and really stood out. Almost everything else however was as flavourless as a stale cracker sandwiched between two sheets of corrugated cardboard, and if I hear the word “entertainment” one more time I’m likely to puke non-stop until my guts fall out of my mouth.

Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind