Archives for category: E3

Note: this piece was written just after June’s E3 trade show. It turns out I’d forgotten to hit the publish button until now. Oops.

With the madness of E3 now over and all those glossy big-budget trailers still rattling around our heads, perhaps it’s time to take a brief look at some of the games that didn’t have the benefit of massive marketing budgets behind them at last week’s video game spectacular. This isn’t to say these games didn’t appear at E3 at all, of course – just that they didn’t get the limelight they might have deserved.

NieR Automata
NieR Automata's 2B
Announced last year to the absolute delight and disbelief of NieR fans everywhere, here was an E3 moment to rival Shenmue 3 for some of us – those that love the game truly, utterly adore it. So it was sad to see this improbable Yoko Taro/Platinum Games collaboration not get a slice of the big-time at Sony’s press conference. With Square Enix declining to hold their own conference this year, the only look we got at the game was through a Square Enix Presents livestream, and thankfully it looked and sounded absolutely brilliant. But it was a slice out of an eight-hour livestream that couldn’t hope to have the reach of a platform holder’s live show.

Star Ocean Integrity and Faithlessness
Star Ocean's Fidel and Miki
Another game that could have showed up at Sony’s show was the upcoming new Star Ocean instalment. Granted, the reason we didn’t see this at E3 is probably just the simple fact that its release is now mere days away, but with the series having been in limbo for a number of years following 2009’s Star Ocean: The Last Hope (like NieR Automata, this is a sequel the fanbase thought it’d never see), it would have been a really nice gesture for the venerable franchise to get a bit of recognition at a major conference again.

Phantom Dust HD

Not to be confused with the sequel/remake/spiritual successor/whatever it was supposed to be that Microsoft announced back at E3 2014, this is basically a port of the original Xbox game to Xbox One and PC. It seems like a pretty small-scale project, small enough that MS didn’t even announce it at their conference, instead choosing to do so on a YouTube Live stream with Geoff Keighley – the news almost managed to slip through the cracks entirely. It’s obviously not going to be a big tentpole title for Microsoft, and I do wonder if this is just them throwing a bone to the fanbase that was waiting for the new game before it was apparently canned last year. If so, perhaps it was left out of the conference itself for strategic reasons – it may have left something of a bad taste in the mouths of those that were waiting for a new title in the series.

Yakuza 0
Yakuza 0
Likely absent down to Sega’s miniscule presence at the trade show, Yakuza was nonetheless at E3, with series’ creator Toshihiro Nagoshi turning up to demo the game for various outlets. The 80’s prequel was announced for the West (well, sort of) at last December’s PlayStation Experience, so Sony have certainly given it stage time before. Perhaps that’s why they chose not to feature the game at E3. It would have been great to see it on a big stage again, but Yakuza has always had a bit of a hard time in the west so it’s almost expected to see it fly under the radar. It is also an intensely Japanese game.

Gravity Rush 2

After the recent port of the original to PlayStation 4, presumably to help build a fanbase on the console, it was a shame not to see this lovely looking sequel make an appearance at Sony’s show. Niche franchises need all the help they can get, so would it have hurt to stick this beautiful minute-and-a-half trailer on the big screen? It would have given the game some much-needed exposure without taking up much time at all.

Mass Effect: Andromeda
Andromeda's Ryder
This may seem a bit of an odd pick, but it feels like all we’ve been getting for god knows how long is dev diary-style sneak peeks. Mass Effect is a huge franchise, and it feels like EA and BioWare have been stringing fans along for ages now; overlong hype cycles tend to have a negative effect on us these days – just look at Watch_Dogs: plenty of people felt they were sick of the game by the time it actually released. With Andromeda out early next year, it really felt like this would be the E3 to host its big reveal party. No doubt we’ll see more on N7 Day in November, but it’s still very disappointing that so little was shown. It was a frustrating moment in EA’s conference, and that’s really saying something.

You’ve probably noted that five of the above games are Japanese, and I do wonder if that points to the reason they didn’t get much love; Japanese console gaming had a bit of a hard time last gen, and while it looks like the industry is bouncing back in a big way this time out, perhaps the market for these games just isn’t big enough to advertise directly to at a huge, western-leaning show like E3. Of course, we saw Final Fantasy XV turn up at Microsoft’s presser, but that series is almost a culture unto itself at this point, and still a massive touchstone for gaming in general. Even then, the Trial of Titan demo shown on-stage by Hajime Tabata and Mat Kishimoto drew plenty of criticism. It’s great that Japanese games are starting to have a bit of a comeback – especially on PlayStation 4 – but whether they can find a decent market in the west is the challenge. Featuring them on the big-screen at E3 would surely help.

I’ve mentioned Sony a fair few times, and that’s because most of these games would have only made sense in their live show. It’s worth noting however that, as well as needing time to properly showcase PSVR, now confirmed to be launching in October, they dramatically cut back their show length this year; whereas previous E3s have seen the company offer up a bloated, meandering two hours, 2016 saw that reduced to a lean, well-paced 75 minutes. Could that have been pushed to 90 minutes and afforded a bit of space for these games? I don’t see why not.

Of course, E3 may be the biggest spectacle in gaming, but it’s no longer the only kid on the block. August will bring Gamescom, Tokyo Game Show hits in September, and Sony may well host their own PlayStation Experience again later in the year. While it would have been great to see these titles on show at E3, hopefully a few of them can get the attention they deserve elsewhere.

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Xbox Scorpio
If last year was all about the games, 2016’s focus was the platform. Bookended by a couple of hardware announcements, which we’ll get into later, and with a focus on new features and functionality for the Xbox One and Windows 10 platform, Microsoft showed off a range of games both announced and new. First though, Rod Fergusson appeared on-stage, ostensibly to demo his studio’s Gears of War 4, and began by announcing Xbox Play Anywhere. Effectively a long-overdue cross-buy initiative from Microsoft, Xbox Play Anywhere allows your digital purchases and save progress to follow you between Xbox One and Windows 10, likely as a result of the recent merging of their respective digital stores. It was a positive start to the show, and many of the following games bore the Play Anywhere logo. It’s obviously a big focus for the company from here on in.

Sticking with the platform theme, Mike Ybarra was in attendance to announce some new features for the console and Xbox Live. Later this summer we’ll see new additions like background music and Cortana, and new social features called Clubs and Looking for Group. Clubs seem to be Microsoft’s analogue to the PlayStation 4’s Communities, while Looking for Group is pretty self-explanatory; Ybarra himself called it “a wanted ad for multiplayer.” It should be a very helpful feature for team-based games in particular, such as the recently-released Overwatch. Also announced was Arena on Xbox Live, a new tournament platform that allows you to sign up for tournaments for both first- and third-party games. One publisher already on-board is EA, who will be bringing Arena tournaments to FIFA.

So let’s talk about the games. It was certainly a solid showing for Microsoft, with plenty of great games on the horizon, and we had the chance to get closer looks at some of the upcoming games for Xbox One and Windows 10 – admittedly, games that were announced last year like Halo Wars 2 and Sea of Thieves, or in the case of Scalebound, even longer ago. Still, the games looked great, with Hideki Kamiya once again taking the stage to show off an enormous co-op boss battle in Platinum’s upcoming exclusive. If you’ll pardon the pun, the scale was suitably impressive as a group of players and their dragons took on a truly gigantic enemy crab, hitting its weak points for massive damage.

GIANT ENEMY CRAB

GIANT ENEMY CRAB

Halo Wars 2, now landing in February, had a rather short showing, with a CGI trailer that rekindled memories of Halo 3‘s sublime ‘Believe’ diorama, before Dan Ayoub from 343 studios came out on stage to announce a multiplayer beta, available right there and then for Xbox One. It runs until June 20th, so make sure to jump in now if you want to check it out. Perhaps the most intriguing exclusive title on Microsoft’s upcoming slate was Recore, which we’ve previously only seen a CGI trailer for. Here we got a decent look at how the Comcept/Armature collaboration will play, with a stylish trailer that aimed to introduce us to heroine Joule and her various robot pals that we’ll be using to fight, explore and traverse the game’s sandy world. Fans had been wondering what kind of game Recore would be since its reveal, and we now know it’ll be a mix of third-person combat, exploration, platforming and mild puzzling. It may not be the most visually striking game you’ll see at this E3, but it certainly looks both fun, and something a little different.

Gears of War 4 continues to look great, and this time we got an extended co-op demo as studio head at The Coalition Rod Fergusson brought Laura Bailey, the voice of Kait, out on stage to help demo the game, with our three heroes braving new enemy the Swarm and some seriously inclement weather as they search for Kait’s mother, abducted earlier in the story. It’s good to finally get a look at how the windflares will affect the playspace, with Kait using the new Dropshot weapon to dislodge a wrecked car, the wind sending it barrelling across the battlefield to take out a group of enemies. Later, we see lightning strikes hit the ground, creating new threats for friend and foe alike. It looked excellent, but still very recognisably Gears, a point underlined by the appearance of an older, gruffer Marcus Fenix at the demo’s end, who appears to have been sitting in the dark, waiting for his son to come home.

A real highlight of the previously announced games was Rare’s Sea of Thieves. The Twycross developer recently invited a group of competition winners to their studios to demo the game, and we got to see the results on the big screen. Split into three groups and given no tutorials, the players were sent out into the world to work together, form three crews and take to the high seas. It was an excellent way to demo the game, showing the players getting to grips with things like raising the anchor, dropping the sails and even drinkin’ grog. Later, we saw the crews come together and battle ship-to-ship, frantically manning the cannons and futilely attempting to effect repairs on their splintered hulls, before one crew ended up sunk and sent to the bottom of the briny sea. It looked absolutely brilliant, and I can’t wait to gather a group of mateys and set out to parts unknown.

There was also some Minecraft news, with the game now becoming cross-play across Windows 10, iOS and Android, as two members of the Minecraft team came out on-stage to demo it, with one on a Surface and the other on an iPad. Oculus’ John Carmack appeared at one point to wheel about with a box on his head, representing the Android pillar of the announcement as he played via Gear VR. Remember when John Carmack used to make games? I do!

But what of new announcements? Well, there were a few, of course, though sadly they were either expected (Forza Horizon 3, State of Decay 2) or leaked hours prior to the conference (Dead Rising 4). Still, they all looked good, or better in the case of Forza. Playground Games’ Ralph Fulton (sadly not of recovery system fame) took the stage to demo his team’s gorgeous new game, coming to both Xbox One and Windows 10 this September, as a group of developers bombed around Australia to show off the new 4-player co-op feature – some playing on PC, others on console. Fulton described it as “the largest, most diverse, most beautiful and most fun open world we’ve ever built,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Dead Rising 4, meanwhile, sees the return of Frank West and is set during Christmas, a detail emphasised in the auditorium itself, as fake snow began to fall. The game will be out “Holiday 2016”, and looked a fair bit like Dead Rising 3, so if you liked that, you’ll probably like this one too. Then there was State of Decay 2, Undead Labs zombie survival sequel which now features 4-player co-op in a persistent shared world, surely pleasing fans of the first game back on Xbox 360 who have been calling for co-op ever since.

There was also, of course, a large third-party presence at Microsoft’s conference, and it was something of a surprise to see Square Enix’s Hajime Tabata and Mat Kishimoto take to the stage to demo Final Fantasy XV on Xbox One for the first time, showcasing the Trial of Titan, where you presumably have to win the enormous summon’s respect before you can call down Gaia’s Wrath in battle. We already know the summons are going to be absolutely crazy in this game, and the demo reminded us of the sheer scale we’ll be seeing when the game hits in just three (!) months. Following on from that was a trailer for The Division‘s Underground Expansion, which will be available first on Xbox One later this month, before Patrick Bach from DICE arrived to announce that Battlefield 1 will be available to trial for EA Access members eight days early, on October 13th. Later, Heihachi and Akuma appeared on the big screen to duke it out and show off Tekken 7 for the Xbox One, before Kaz Harada stepped out to announce that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is currently free for Live Gold members, playable on Xbox One via the console’s backward compatibility program.

"Have you taken your Joy?" (SOURCE: www.ign.com)

“Have you taken your Joy?”

Of course, you can’t have an E3 conference without a lengthy indie montage, and after a short look at Inside, the new game from the makers of Limbo that will finally hit Xbox One in two weeks, Chris Charla, ID@Xbox Director, hit the stage to show off glimpses of highly anticipated games like Yooka-Laylee, Cuphead and Below, along with new titles like the intriguing Deliver us the Moon and the beautiful Figment. The absolute highlight however was a stage demo of We Happy Few, the new project from Compulsion Games, the team that brought us Contrast. Coming across like BioShock shot through with Huxley’s Brave New World, it’s coming to Xbox Game Preview on July 29th, and it looks utterly brilliant. Rounding out the segment was CD Projekt Red’s Damien Monnier, taking the stage to announce Gwent, a standalone version of The Witcher 3‘s card-battling game that will be entering closed beta in September.

So it was a pretty solid games lineup that Microsoft unveiled on Monday night, but it’s the two big hardware announcements that bookended the briefing that have been grabbing all the headlines post-E3. Let’s start with the first one, the one that Microsoft chose to open the show: the Xbox One S. A slimmer, 40% smaller iteration of the current hardware, The ‘robot white’ Xbox One S nevertheless comes with a few nice extras over the box launched back in 2013. First up is support for High Dynamic Range output for games and video content that support the feature, allowing greater levels of contrast and luminosity, provided you have a compatible screen. Secondly, there’s support for 4K video for apps and video streaming services, as well as a new bluray drive for UHD discs. Games can now also be upscaled to 4K, and the power brick has been done away with in favour of an internal power supply.

Despite these upgrades, The Xbox One S does not offer any additional power to developers; it will play the same games in the same way as the current system, support for HDR excepted, and all games and accessories will of course work with the new machine. If you want a beefier Xbox though, Microsoft’s got you covered. Well, sort of. At the end of their conference, Phil Spencer returned to the stage to confirm the existence of Project Scorpio, a 6 teraflop monster of a console that will be hitting the market late next year.

“The next step-change for gamers and developers must deliver true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR,” said Spencer. Scorpio is being targeted as “the we-heard-you console,” the console that developers asked Microsoft to build, and it’s already being billed as “the most powerful console ever” despite being a year and a half away. Still, it’s a claim that seems to hold water, given the expected 4.3TFs of the PS4 Neo, and thankfully Phil Spencer went to great pains to declare that no one gets left behind. “We believe in hardware innovation without sacrificing compatibility,” he said, describing Scorpio as the next addition to the Xbox One family, and “ultimately the next step in delivering our vision for the future of gaming beyond generations.” I’ve talked briefly before about a future without hard resets between generations of hardware, where instead of a new machine starting from zero you get to bring forward all your games, accessories, saves and everything else, and it’s something I’m quite excited to see. So while it seems incredibly early to announce Scorpio, it did excite me.

So why did Microsoft announce their new machine a year and a half out? And why announce the S, when there’s the promise of the new shiny to get excited about? Last week, Sony’s Andrew House confirmed the existence of the PS4 Neo in an interview with the Financial Times, but cautioned fans not to expect it at E3. Prior to this, I thought Microsoft might announce the Scorpio early to keep themselves in the conversation, but with Neo a no-show, it feels like there was a window of opportunity that Microsoft couldn’t afford to miss, a chance to grab the ‘beyond generations’ headlines all for themselves. We of course know that Neo is coming, but we also now know that Scorpio is likely to be a fair bit more powerful – Spencer will surely be hoping the promise of more computing power will give consumers pause for thought once Neo is announced. It almost feels like a reflection of the wait for PS2 when Dreamcast hit the market.

This year, with Microsoft focussing mostly on already-announced games and new platform features, it feels like they’re almost in something of a holding pattern, which perhaps explains the existence of the Xbox One S – here’s this years’ stuff, and here’s a smaller console with a few bells and whistles to tide you over while we work on the next big thing. With Scorpio on the horizon, expect next year to be something of a grand re-launch for the Xbox brand. For now, with games appearing on both Xbox One and Windows 10, with cross-buy linking the two together and a beast of a new console on the way, it feels like they’re in a pretty good place to reach that target.

Remedy Entertainment, creators of Max Payne, Alan Wake and Quantum Break, have expanded into two teams and begun work on their next projects, so says Head of Communications Thomas Puha in a ‘State of the Studio’ post over on the Finnish developer’s website.

Unfortunately, neither of these two teams are creating a sequel to cult favourite Alan Wake, which launched six years ago on the Xbox 360, before coming to PC back in 2012. “[W]e feel that it’s important to set the expectations right and let you, the fans, know that neither of the two projects currently in development is an Alan Wake game,” Puha wrote. “We’re working on something else, but at the same time we’re exploring opportunities in other mediums to tell more Alan Wake stories.

It’s a smart move to set expectations like that, as fans have been clamouring for a sequel for years and would immediately make the assumption that Alan Wake 2 is coming – certainly after all the easter eggs in Quantum Break that seemed to be dropping hints for Wake‘s Return. But that statement makes it sound like there’s little chance of a return to that franchise in video game form, which would be incredibly disappointing. At this point I’d take anything, even a webseries; Bright Falls, the pre-release tie-in, was actually pretty good, after all. Expand on the idea a bit and bring in Ilkka Villi to play the parts of Wake and Mr Scratch, and it could be pretty decent. Ah, who am I kidding, please make Alan Wake 2, Remedy.

Looks like Alan isn't going to Wake up for a while (I am so sorry).

Looks like Alan isn’t going to Wake up for a while (I am so sorry).

So what do we know about Remedy’s two new projects? Well, not a lot. In the post, Puha notes that Remedy have in the past announced games too early, and that they’re looking to learn from this experience. To that end, they won’t be taking the stage at E3 next week or Gamescom in August; “we should have the patience to announce games when they’re ready enough,” says Puha. Fans are of course used to waiting for Remedy to drop the goods, but we usually know what we’re looking forward to.

We do get a few little hints dropped throughout the post, however. It would seem both projects are intended to be AAA games, suggesting the studio will be expanding a fair bit (a supposition backed up by a wealth of job vacancies currently listed on their site for programmers, engineers and artists), while one of the titles has apparently been in development “[f]or a while now, already”. Most interesting is the mention of a new partner for this game, as Remedy have been partnering with Microsoft for their big games for the last decade, leading to speculation that either party is no longer happy with the arrangement. Of course, we’ll likely never know, and it may well just be down to Remedy wanting to hit more platforms.

Discussion immediately erupted around the subject of who this new publisher might be. No information is given on this, though in all likelihood it’s a third party looking to publish the game to multiple platforms. I’ve seen some mention Sony, saying it’d be quite a move for the platform holder to ‘poach’ Remedy’s next game out from under Microsoft’s nose, and while I agree it’d generate some headlines on gaming sites and forums, I don’t know if I can see Sony fronting the cash for a Remedy project; the Finnish studio make story-driven, cinematic third person shooters, and that’s an area of the Playstation 4’s portfolio that’s already pretty well covered – by the time Remedy’s new project is unveiled, we’ll probably have seen what Naughty Dog are working on, for instance, while third party efforts, like the forthcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider, will also help to fill that genre out. There’s no real need for Sony to invest there.

Beth was so awesome. Can we have some more Beth, please?

Beth was so awesome. Can we have some more Beth, please?

We know even less about the other project, which is currently just an early concept. It’s unlikely to be a sequel to this year’s Quantum Break – Microsoft own that IP, after all, so would almost certainly be publishing anything else set within that universe. Interestingly, Puha does note that the studio will continue to “support” the game, but quite what ongoing support is needed for a single player-only, story-driven game is unknown – at least for the console version. It’s mentioned that an update is on the way for the game, but what that entails isn’t detailed, and while I’d love a sequel, I’d happily take some Beth DLC in lieu of that, focussing around her during a certain part of the story, and maybe with a Fight ’til Dawn-style arcade mode to make the most of the combat engine and time powers. Sadly, it feels like all we’ll get going forward are some housekeeping updates. At least for now, anyway; Puha states that the team are extremely proud of the game and mention that it’s the “biggest-selling new Microsoft Studios published IP this generation”, so hopefully they’re able to return to it one day. You know, much like they’ll hopefully return to Alan Wake one day…

So while we wait to see what Remedy’s cooking up, and who it is they’re working with, at least we now know not to expect an Alan Wake or Quantum Break sequel on Monday. While that does mean I can now manage my expectations a bit better, it of course leaves me somewhat disappointed too. Still, Remedy always bring the goods, so when they do decide to come out and unveil their new project I, along with all the fans of their work, will be there.

With Sony’s upgraded Playstation 4 ‘Neo’ all but announced, talk has since turned to what Microsoft plan to do to combat an even more powerful rival console. After all, Phil Spencer was the first to bring up the potential of upgrading gaming hardware in the middle of a generation when, speaking at a Microsoft press event in March, he said, “You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible…”

As such, it was something of a surprise when rumours of PS4 Neo broke and there was not a murmur of anything similar coming from Microsoft. Well, now we have much more than murmurings, with multiple independent publications reporting that their sources have informed them of a couple of new hardware developments from the Xbox team. There’s of course news of a slim Xbox One, but far more interesting are the rumours of an upgraded console, codenamed Scorpio.

According to Polygon, Scorpio is planned to be a 6 teraflop beast of a machine, more than four times the performance of the current Xbox One (which is held to be around 1.3TF), and a decent chunk more powerful than the rumoured Neo, which apparently clocks in at a bit over 4TF. Kotaku note that they’ve also heard the machine would be in the 5-6TF region, so it seems like Scorpio will be a very capable machine. Like Neo, Scorpio is expected to be both backward- and forward-compatible, with all existing Xbox One games capable of running on the new hardware, and while it is now expected to be announced very soon – E3 is just around the corner, after all – it’s not expected to hit store shelves until later next year.

Polygon state that power is a primary concern for Microsoft this time out, as they look to end the ‘weaker console’ narrative, while Kotaku has heard that the company are looking into a deeper partnership with Oculus; the Facebook-owned HMD currently comes supplied with an Xbox One controller in the box and allows console owners to play their Xbox One games in a virtual theatre setting, but with the additional power available to Scorpio, could Microsoft be about to bring Oculus Rift to console? With Sony looking to push PlayStation VR this year, they’ll certainly need something to combat that.

While it may seem an odd decision to announce a new machine a year or more before it becomes available, with Neo apparently on track to launch this year Microsoft will likely feel they need something to combat the impression that the Xbox is slipping even further behind – Polygon reports that they were blindsided with the more recent reports of a 2016 release for Neo, as they had expected to be going head-to-head with Sony’s new machine next year. Of course, an early announcement has the potential to completely stall sales of their current console, but Microsoft may see this as a risk worth taking if it keeps them in the conversation – they aren’t likely to be happy with Sony walking away with all the headlines while they just keep on trucking with a far weaker console.

On the flipside, Microsoft may find it worthwhile to let Sony go first. Iterative consoles could prove to be a risky venture, after all, as console owners are used to buying a box that will serve them for five or six years without any further investment needed. While there is excitement around Neo at the moment, there’s also a touch of confusion and annoyance; if players don’t see a good reason to upgrade, or feel they’ve been left in the dust just three or so years into the generation, the whole endeavour could backfire. For their part, Sony have apparently told developers that games must be structurally the same on both PS4 and Neo, leaving things like resolution and framerate as the only beneficiaries of upgraded hardware – you likely won’t see Neo-exclusive gameplay features on your shiny new box, and while this is the right thing to do for those 40 million existing owners, it also leaves little incentive to upgrade for a great many people. Letting Sony go first allows Microsoft to watch the landscape and see how consumers take to it, at the risk of slipping even further behind and looking down the barrel of supporting the standard Xbox One for a year against a far more powerful rival. Either way, it’ll certainly be a difficult balancing act.

When the Neo rumours broke, I wondered if the idea was driven almost entirely by VR, and the power needed to drive it. With the rumours of Scorpio being Oculus-compatible, perhaps backed up by a new rumour from Ars Technica, there’s a good chance that it’s a strong reason behind the push for more powerful hardware. Of course, there’s also the question of what happens when the next generation comes? Let’s assume Sony wants to launch PS5 in 2019 – three years after the Neo and six after the base PS4 – will Microsoft be a year behind again? Surely they wouldn’t want to release a new gen console a mere two years after Scorpio, yet surely they also wouldn’t want to be a year behind to the new gen party?

I think what’s more likely – if Neo and Scorpio are successful at least – is that, rather than a hard reset between ‘generations’, we’ll simply see Microsoft and Sony putting out new, more powerful hardware every few years, raising the power profile but keeping compatibility for all existing games. In my recent piece about Xbox One’s backward compatibility program, I posited that it could be the first step in such a plan for Microsoft. If it all shakes out, it could mark the end of a hard separation between console generations, and the dawn of the console as an evolving platform. I could get behind that.

It seems the console landscape is on the verge of a significant step change, and it’ll be interesting to see where everything falls over the next year or so. One thing’s for sure, though – this year’s E3 is going to be absolutely bonkers.

First published on Vexoid on 31/05/16

After months of teases and rumours, Square Enix have finally announced an HD remaster of PS2 RPG Final Fantasy XII.

First teased by conductor Arnie Roth at a Distant Worlds concert last August, and then again in a new Prima guide a month later, the Japanese publisher today confirmed the title in a two-minute trailer, below. Called Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the new release is heading to PS4 in 2017 and will be based on the International Zodiac Job System version of the game, which has until now remained in Japan.

In addition to the changes to the license board and battle system, Square Enix is also promising a full 1080p remastering of all assets and cutscenes, a re-recorded soundtrack in 7.1 surround (including the ability to switch between the original and new soundtracks), and a host of quality of life improvements, such as auto-saves and shortened load times. We’re also promised “high definition voicing” so hopefully the slightly tinny delivery of the original release will be a thing of the past.

While the Final Fantasy fanbase is generally pretty divided when it comes to discussions around the best game in the franchise, Final Fantasy XII tends to be among the most divisive entries. Whether it’s the ‘offline MMO’ game structure, the more languid style of storytelling, or just plain old Vaan, there are plenty of series fans that just didn’t enjoy XII. Conversely, those that love the game really love it, often citing it as the best in the series. For my part, I played just 14 hours of it before giving up – I just couldn’t get into it. Because of that, I’ve been hoping for an HD remaster for a fair while so that I could give it another chance. I had really hoped for a Vita version though, and so far it looks like the game is only coming to the PS4. It’s understandable, but a touch disappointing nonetheless. Given Square’s recent PC strategy though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it arrive on that platform some time after its PlayStation 4 release.

With E3 just a week away, we’re heading strongly into video game silly season, and with announcements like this, it seems the party’s getting started early. Here’s hoping we get a closer look at Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age next week.

coletrainwoo
With the recent release of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One, the maiden release from Microsoft’s Vancouver-based team The Coalition, one of the biggest franchises of the previous generation is back in the spotlight where it belongs.

First announced back at E3 in June, its stage presence in Microsoft’s keynote put to bed months of rumours that we’d be getting remasters of the entire series, along the lines of the Master Chief Collection. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brings Delta Squad’s first adventure to Xbox One, with some extra bells and whistles and visuals rebuilt from the ground up.

Now nine years old, Gears of War was a graphical powerhouse when it burst onto Xbox 360 in 2006, but in the cold, harsh light of 2015 it’s surprising how rough around the edges the game now looks. For most people though, that’s not how the game lives in their memories, and that’s the problem The Coalition had to tackle with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. To that end, the team decided to keep the base geometry, AI scripting and source code – ensuring the game plays exactly as we remember it – while rebuilding absolutely everything else. Every single model and asset – over 3,000 of them – were rebuilt from the ground up for the Xbox One. That includes cutscenes, which have been re-framed, re-shot and re-mo-capped in their entirety, while five previously PC-exclusive chapters of the game – comprising roughly two hours of gameplay – that had to be excised from the original Xbox 360 release have been reinstated here. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is not so much a remaster as it is a remake.

It’s not just in the visual department that the new team want to make their mark, though. Back when Epic were first building Gears of War, they had no idea whether it would become a franchise, with sequels, merchandise, companion novels and the like. As the franchise evolved, so did the games, with Gears 3 in particular digging deep into the backstory and characters from the extended universe material. The Coalition wanted to draw some of those interconnecting lines back into the very birth of the series, though to preserve the game mostly as we remember it, they chose to go about it in fairly subtle ways; in a panel at this year’s SDCC, the team talked about some of their efforts to tie the original game more deeply into the wider world of Sera, mentioning a message scrawled in blood – “Welcome to the Slab” – in the opening prison level as an example of this – that prison wasn’t actually named until Karen Traviss’ 2008 novel Aspho Fields. Other touches are more overt, yet still hidden to a degree; collectible CoG tags now unlock pages from the series’ canon of comic books, that you can later read in the game’s menus.

Just as they did on the 360, Microsoft are looking to push Gears in a big way for the Xbox One. The difference this time is that they now own the IP, having acquired it last January from original developer Epic Games. It’s not often we hear of IP changing hands in this way, but Microsoft had to move to secure the exclusivity of one of their biggest franchises from the previous gen; Epic’s ex-president Mike Capps had previously indicated that he’d like to see the series hit PlayStation platforms, and not long after the acquisition, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed to Polygon that the developer had no plans for a continuation: “Because we weren’t planning on building any more Gears games,” Sweeney said, “we were just going to let that sit on the shelf for a decade or more, in case it had any future value to us.”

Clearly, Microsoft had to do something to secure the future of Gears, a franchise that Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer has called “part of the soul of Xbox.” It’s worth remembering what an enormous impact Gears of War had last gen: for many, it was the first truly ‘next-gen’ moment of the 360/PS3 cycle, influencing future projects like Uncharted, before going on to sell more than 22 million units and break the billion-dollar mark in franchise sales. So while we don’t know how much the acquisition cost Microsoft, and we’re unlikely to ever find out, its value to the Xbox brand is clear.

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We do know that it effectively cost Microsoft a studio though, or at least that studio’s name and potential (read: non-Gears) output. The IP acquisition led to Black Tusk (itself formerly Microsoft Vancouver) changing their name to The Coalition (a reference to the in-universe Coalition of Ordered Governments) and taking on Gears of War exclusively; much like fellow first party teams 343 Industries (Halo) and Turn 10 (Forza), The Coalition will now become ‘The Gears Studio’. This has unfortunately led to the shelving of Black Tusk’s previous project, known only as Shangheist (and of which only a vague concept trailer was ever shown), which has given some cause to decry Microsoft’s strategy of tying their small number of first party teams to a single franchise. However, Microsoft’s strategy for new IP appears to be geared more towards creating and curating new franchises with third party partners (see Platinum with Scalebound, Remedy’s Quantum Break, and ReCore with Comcept and Armature, for instance), while building up top-tier teams to handle their most valuable assets. With Microsoft retaining those IPs, this could be a smart way to do business and increase the brand’s pool of properties, but we shall have to wait and see how such a strategy pans out over the coming years.

One thing’s for sure though: with veteran series producer Rod Fergusson at the helm, Gears of War looks to be in good hands indeed, and the team at The Coalition is using their experience rebuilding the first game as a learning experience for the future. Upon Fergusson’s arrival at Black Tusk, as it was still known then, he tasked the team with a week or two of nothing but playing Gears games, the idea being to bring everyone up to speed quickly and furnish the entire team with an intimate understanding of what makes the games tick. The Ultimate Edition of Gears of War thus serves a handful of different functions: not only does it fill a slot in Microsoft’s end-of-year blockbuster blitzkrieg, but it also gets a Gears game on Xbox One to let people know that the series will see a continuation. Most importantly for the future of the franchise, it serves as, in Fergusson’s words, “the perfect on-ramp” for the team to take the franchise forward with Gears of War 4.

And what of Gears 4? That game was also fully unveiled back at E3, with Fergusson rather surprisingly demoing a six-minute playable slice that introduced the characters of JD and Kait and the beautifully rendered, dark and creepy world they inhabit. Not much is known about the setting for the game – we’re assuming it’ll still take place on Sera, but there’s no indication what time period it’s set in, who these two new leads are, or even what it is they’re doing.

One thing we can discern is, perhaps, the tone of the game. Gears has never been anything other than a big summer blockbuster action game, but the first instalment definitely had some horror stylings to it – it was massively influenced by Resident Evil 4, after all. For all its pale snarling monsters, impossibly-proportioned soldiers and Cole Train “Woo!”s, it was, at times, a darkly atmospheric experience, as anyone who remembers the foreboding, rain-soaked Lethia Imulsion Facility can attest, and while the later games didn’t necessarily lose that atmosphere, they definitely leant more towards the all-out-war side of the Gears experience. Gears 4 seems to be heading back to that tone, with the demo showcasing two lone Gears tracking some elusive, deadly prey through a deserted town in the midst of a deafening storm, only to discover that some hideous organic growth has taken up residence in the absence of people.

Just what is going on in Gears 4 will be the subject of much speculation for fans of the series as we head towards its late 2016 release, but right now, all eyes are on The Coalition’s shiny rebuild of the game that started it all. It’s time to start flexing that active reload finger.

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Since the somewhat mixed reception to Halo 4, developer 343 industries have been quietly working away to improve on everything fans disliked about their 2012 debut. From Halo 5: Guardians‘ showing at E3 this month though, you’d be hard-pressed to have noticed.

It’s safe to say Halo 5: Guardians had something of an underwhelming gameplay debut at Microsoft’s press conference. Our first glimpse at the game’s single-player campaign – a tightly-scripted, explosion-filled six-minute jaunt through the narrow environs of the Covenant-held world Sunaion – wasn’t quite the gameplay reveal fans were hoping for coming off the back of Halo 4. That game saw the franchise’s trademark wide-open level design and huge set-piece battles scaled back noticeably in favour of a much shinier presentation – a move which became one of the major points of contention with 343’s handling of the Halo IP, and a trend you could be forgiven for thinking they were continuing after Halo 5‘s E3 reveal.

Yet, as negative as some fans are towards 343’s stewardship of the series, this kind of focused, scripted demo was actually somewhat unexpected for fans. In the run up to E3, there had been plenty to get excited about, as the Microsoft studio began ramping up their marketing campaign with early live action trailers, ARGs and magazine blowouts setting the stage for what to expect from the next instalment in Microsoft’s premier exclusive franchise.

Whereas Halo 4 saw 343 extending Bungie’s pre-existing fiction to support their own, creating a ton of new extended universe material to lead up to – and out of – their first Halo game, Halo 5 sees them drawing from the entire canon to create what they hope will be the biggest, most ambitious title in the franchise yet. Reaching right back to the birth of the extended universe in the run-up to Halo 5‘s reveal at E3, a thirteen-part audio drama called Hunt the Truth explored the origins of the Master Chief and his fellow Spartan IIs while also laying down some foreshadowing with vague mentions of deep space anomalies and mysterious events happening in the fiercely independent, neglected outer colonies. The series also dealt with the idea that the Master Chief had gone rogue, a plot element introduced just before the start of Hunt the Truth with two excellent, opposing live-action trailers.

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With Hunt the Truth underway, fans were also treated to a small-scale ARG that teased the cover art for the game, and revealed something of a megaton for followers of the extended universe: the cover art featured Blue Team. It was later confirmed in a Game Informer cover feature that Chief would not only be accompanied by Blue Team during the events of the game, but they’d be playable in drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op. Fans have wanted to see fellow Spartan IIs Fred, Linda and Kelly appear in a Halo game since reading the first extended universe novel, The Fall of Reach, back in 2001; indeed, when Halo Reach first debuted at E3 in 2009 with the silhouettes of an entire squad of Spartans, many of us thought we’d finally see the in-game introduction of the Chief’s closest comrades. We’ve had to wait a long time, but we’re finally getting our wish. It’s surely a surprise to some fans that it’s actually 343 that’s making it happen.

This four-person squad mechanic also feeds into the expanded sense of scale we can expect to see in Halo 5: Guardians. Those Game Informer features, echoed in previews from other media outlets, made mention of environments that offer multiple different routes, enabling players to tackle objectives in a number of ways – combine this with the ability to order your teammates to attack specific targets, take up positions and activate objectives, and you can start to get some idea of the wider possibilities at play. If this all sounds just a little bit like Star Wars: Republic Commando, well, there’s a reason for that; Tim Longo, creative director on that game. now fulfils that same role on Halo 5, with his predecessor Josh Holmes stepping into the role of Studio Head. Halo has long been ripe with opportunity to take the base formula, which has at this point been polished to a perfect shine, and try to expand that in interesting ways – who remembers thinking Halo 4 might take some cues from Metroid Prime after 343 took on some ex-Retro staff? – and these squad mechanics, coupled with more intricate level design and some new movement abilities, feel like they should be a perfect fit for the series.

This also extends to Warzone, 343’s new large-scale multiplayer mode that hopes to encompass all aspects of the Halo sandbox. Warzone stands in stark contrast to last December’s Arena beta – if that four-map test suggested that 343 were focused on recapturing Halo‘s tight, competitive arena combat, Warzone is the developer pushing at the very boundaries of Halo‘s beautifully elastic sandbox. Played on environments four times larger than any previous Halo map, Warzone takes some cues from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre and sees two teams of 12 Spartans battle it out to control strategic points on the map in an effort to weaken the opponent’s base, while also fighting off hostile AI, including spawning bosses that can either hold a spot on the map for themselves, forcing players to root them out to claim it for their team, or roam about the map – even in vehicles like a banshee.

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Players will also level up as the match progresses, gaining access to better weapons and vehicles as they go, escalating the mayhem, until, by the end of the round, the enormous maps are crawling with players, AI, power weapons and fleets of vehicles. It sounds like it’s throwing everything Halo, including the Infinity’s kitchen sink, into one insane, over the top, carnage-filled mode, and it looks like it’ll be an absolute blast.

All of which makes their decision to show that tightly controlled, linear story segment as our first (and, so far, only!) glimpse at Halo 5‘s single-player mode a little odd. Surely it’s the hardest of the hardcore that are going to watch E3 – the ones that have been following every little hint, every little breadcrumb, every cryptic tweet – the ones that are going to want to dive deep into the mechanics and systems at play? The reveal had the effect of feeling a little deflating after all the hype and build-up. To the casual observer, Halo 5 simply looked to be continuing 4‘s path towards a more linear experience.

So it was a surprisingly lightweight showing for what will be Microsoft’s biggest game of the year. However, that’s not to say there was nothing to glean from the six-minute segment. Right from the start, we’re introduced to Jameson Locke, long since confirmed as a second playable protagonist, and his team of Spartan IVs, which includes everyone’s favourite former ODST Eddie Buck. We know they’re tracking the Chief on a Covenant-held world with the help of the Arbiter, who, embroiled in a civil war with his fellow Elites, is attempting to crush the remnants of that crumbling civilization. We learn that there are two new enemies – the Forerunner aerial Unit called the Phaeton and the agile new Promethean Soldier. We also see a new Covenant weapon in the Plasma Caster, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we learn that the grunts speak English again!

More difficult to pick out is the ability to order your squad around. In the demo we see Locke instruct comms specialist Vale to analyse a discarded MA5 rifle, and later tell Buck to fire on an attacking Phaeton, but if you didn’t know you were able to manually issue orders in-game, it would be easy to assume these were simply scripted sequences. This is compounded by how narrow and scripted the demo is as a whole, and why it would have been so much more illustrative to have a developer on-stage to walk viewers through the various additions in Halo 5. Instead of giving the impression that we’re in for Halo 4 Part 2, they could have amplified that pre-reveal excitement and ridden it all the way to release.

Of course, there’s still a few months to go before launch, and those things that so excited fans prior to E3 are still there to look forward to. 343 industries have been saying all the right things in the lead up to the reveal, and we expected them to walk the walk at the biggest gaming event on the calendar. Gamescom is just around the corner, so here’s hoping we get an extended look at the game then. How about it, Microsoft?