Archives for category: Press conferences

Sonic 25th anniversay
After much teasing and dropping of hints, Sega have finally announced what’s next for Sonic the Hedgehog in this, his 25th year. The Blue Blur will be speeding through 2017 in not one but two new games, with the retro-inspired Sonic Mania set to launch next Spring and a new main series entry, currently called Project Sonic 2017 due later in the year.

The two games were announced at Sonic’s birthday party at San Diego Comic Con, which was also streamed live on Twitch and YouTube. Unfortunately for those of us at home, the stream was a bit of a mess; it started much later than advertised, and then suffered persistent audio problems, with sound occasionally dropping out entirely. In fact, the stream was so buggy that one wondered if the surprise announcement would be a straight port of Sonic 06.

Thankfully we were spared the horror of that alternate reality. So let’s look at the first of these new games, Sonic Mania. As if to appease those fans that are constantly calling for a more classic Sonic experience, Sonic Mania looks like a lost Megadrive game, and development is being led by Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead, known among Sonic fandom for his work on ports of Sonics 1, 2 and CD, using his own Retro Engine. He was joined on-stage by head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka, who mentioned that along with all new levels (one of which, Studiopolis Zone, is shown off in the reveal trailer), classic levels will be present and remixed in the new game. Graphics, movement and momentum all look absolutely spot-on, as you’d expect from Whitehead, but beside fresh stages there’s also a new gameplay mechanic in the Drop Dash, which seems to allow you to initiate a spin dash in the air, zooming off as you hit the ground. It looks like it’ll be great for sudden changes in direction while maintaining momentum. Sonic Mania was playable at the event, so there’s already plenty of gameplay footage on YouTube, but for us mere mortals unable to attend the party itself, the new game is currently scheduled to launch on PC, PS4 and Xbox One next spring.

So we’ve got our classic, 2D Megadrive-y Sonic covered, what about Modern Sonic, I hear you cry? Well, held back until the very final moments of the party was a reveal trailer for Project Sonic 2017. Although Iizuka made a point of saying that the new game was not a sequel, but a “brand new experience”, it’s difficult not to see the game as Sonic Generations 2. Indeed, the trailer sets the scene by proclaiming, “From the team that brought you Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations” leading us to believe it’ll be a return to the successful ‘boost’ formula seen in those games, as we see Modern Sonic boosting, jumping and sliding. Moments later, he’s joined by Classic Sonic as the pair team up, just as in the hedgehog’s last anniversary game.

Fans have been hoping for a return to the playstyle of daytime-Unleashed/Colours/Generations for a good few years now, after both Lost World and spin-off Sonic Boom each failed to impress, but one thing that may give pause is the tone of the trailer. Opening on a devastated city (that looks suspiciously like the one from City Escape to me…) under attack from enormous automatons that look more than a little bit like Sonic 2‘s Death Egg Robot, the colour palette is muted, swamped in browns, and the final tagline of the trailer reads, “Join the Resistance.” Hmm. Hopefully the full game is not too self-serious, as that just doesn’t work very well for Sonic (you need only take a look at Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow the Hedgehog or the aforementioned Sonic 06 for proof of that). I don’t think we’re going to be looking at a grimdark Sonic though – the last few franchise entries, even as far back as Unleashed, have been generally breezy, ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ affairs, and it feels like the people at Sonic Team now realize this is where the franchise needs to be. Project Sonic 2017 is slated for late next year, and will hit PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo NX.

Alongside the game reveals, the party was of course a general celebration of everything Sonic. We got a brief look at both Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice for the 3DS and the character’s appearance in Lego Dimensions, as well as a short clip from Season 2 of the well-regarded Boom cartoon; the cast even came out on stage to do a script reading, but unfortunately the stream rather annoyingly cut away from this. The tone was often completely, bafflingly, bonkers, with random interjections for such mundanity as a nacho tasting session from one of the sponsors, but it opened up to a rather half-hearted, lethargic set from Hyper Potions, complete with a lifesize, very Mikudayo-looking Sonic mascot who waddled onto the stage to throw some uncomfortable-looking shapes. Sonidayo later returned to the stage alongside Hello Kitty, for possibly the most inexplicable crossover you could imagine. It did, however, allow me to gif this.


Yep. Totally worth it.

Other than the games, the highlight of the night came when legendary Sega composer and Crush 40 guitarist Jun Senoue hit the stage to play some of the band’s Sonic themes. To be honest, it felt a little weird at first to see Senoue jamming along to a backing track, but I have to admit to grinning like an absolute loon when he started to play Escape from the City, encouraging the crowd to sing along, and when he followed that up with Open Your Heart, joined onstage by Crush 40 singer Johnny Gioeli, I was not at all surprised to find myself actually singing along. Well ok, not singing, as it was about 3:30 am, but mouthing the words, at least. It was a performance that lacked a bit of the energy you’d have got from a full band playing live, but it was still a great treat for the fans, especially those that love the music of the Sonic series. It must have been fun to be there in person.

This was an event by and for Sonic fans, and by all measures it was a massive success. As a Sonic fan, I’d have loved to have been there myself. However, the series still faces struggles in the wider market; Sonic remains a big brand in gaming, but the ‘Sonic Cycle’ is still in full effect, with the last two big games undoing all the good that Colours and Generations managed to do. With a return to a proper classic style of Sonic, as well as a game that looks to be expanding on those two excellent ‘boost’ games, it certainly looks like we’re on the upswing again. The only way it could be any better is if there was also a Sonic Racing 3 on the cards. Ooh, just imagine.

[Credit for Crush 40 live clips: W10002 on YouTube.]

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.

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.

ramuh
Though GameSpot managed to spill the beans mere hours before Square Enix’s Uncovered: Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles last night, spoiling the upcoming title’s release date in a since-removed YouTube video, they certainly didn’t manage to ruin all the surprises. Square Enix’s social media accounts had promised that fans of the long-running Final Fantasy saga should tune in regardless, promising they’d be missing out if they didn’t watch. And, as it turns out, they were absolutely spot on, as Uncovered featured a bevy of reveals, announcements and surprises, the first of which was Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, opening the show.

Taking the stage to rapturous applause, Sakaguchi-san talked about how he views the series as his child, and much like a child, a parent often wonders whether they are on the right path or not – a not so veiled reference to the franchise’s recent struggles that sent some ripples of laughter through the 6,000-strong audience, and set a playful, self-assured tone for the rest of the night. Though he hasn’t been involved with Final Fantasy for quite some time now, leaving Square Enix over a decade ago, he spoke about how he had a chance to sit down with Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata, who told him that he planned to take the series back to its ‘challenger’ roots. This reassured Sakaguchi, who had always thought of Final Fantasy as something that always sought out new challenges, and it certainly looks like that’s what the team are hoping to do with Final Fantasy XV.

The main takeaway from Uncovered is that Square Enix seem to be incredibly bullish about Final Fantasy XV‘s chances at recapturing the public’s imagination. They’re going all out with this property, treating fans to a lavish event streamed around the world, with Final Fantasy royalty in the house – as well as Sakaguchi-san, long-standing series artist Yoshitaka Amano, FFXV composer Yoko Shimomura and director Hajime Tabata were all in attendance. Last night’s event wasn’t just to generate hype for the new game, which we now know will be launching worldwide on September 30th (yes, this year); it was also to announce that Final Fantasy XV will be accompanied by its very own compilation of expanded material. Years after Final Fantasy VII’s release, with its legacy already assured, Square Enix began the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. With Final Fantasy XV, they’re establishing it as its very own metaseries right now.

bhffxv

In an astonishing display of confidence, last night Square Enix, via presenters Greg Miller and Tim Gettys of Kinda Funny Games, announced that Final Fantasy XV will be getting a five-part anime prequel series, a feature-length CG movie, and a mobile app minigame. They’re going all-in with this, turning Final Fantasy XV into a complete cross-media sub-franchise of its own, so let’s talk about each of those in a bit more detail. Brotherhood, the anime prequel, stars the game’s four main characters – Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto – and serves as a direct prequel to the game, promising to elaborate on the history and bonds between our heroes. Made by A-1 Pictures, the animation house behind the likes of Sword Art Online, the five episodes will be free to watch on Square Enix’s YouTube page, and the first one is already available to watch now. I’ll be writing about that in more depth in a separate piece.

Kingsglaive is the name of the CG movie, a feature-length film in the vein of 2005’s Final Fantasy VII sequel Advent Children, and it focuses on the characters of Noctis’ father King Regis of Lucis, Noctis’ betrothed, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, and the soldier Nyx, a member of the titular Kingsglaive, an elite unit commanded by King Regis as they try to push back Niflheim’s imperial army. In another show of confidence, the film will feature an all-star cast, with Sean Bean, Lena Headey and Aaron Paul starring as Regis, Luna and Nyx respectively, though it’s not yet clear whether these same actors will reprise their roles in the game itself (or whether Nyx will even appear in-game). It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case, going by the game’s latest trailer, in which Regis sports an American accent, but time will tell. Kingsglaive will be available to stream and download worldwide sometime this year, and you can see the trailer below.

And then there’s Justice Monsters Five, a minigame that appears and is playable within Final Fantasy XV. Existing within the game’s fiction – we see our heroes excitedly come across a table in a diner – Justice Monsters Five appears to be some kind of pinball/battling hybrid featuring iconic Final Fantasy monsters. Leading up to its unveiling, names like Tetra Master, Triple Triad, Blitzball and Chocobo Racing were bandied about, so we can assume that Justice Monsters Five will be the main minigame in Final Fantasy XV. But it won’t just exist inside the game of course, as it will be coming to iOS, Android and Windows 10 as a standalone app, so you can get your Justice Monsters Five fix on the go.

While there was quite a focus on the supplemental, expanded universe content during the Uncovered event, that’s not to say we didn’t get a good look at the game itself. Viewers were treated to a few short gameplay clips featuring things such as chocobo riding (chocobos can jump, glide, and even drift around corners), and driving in the party’s car, the Regalia. Of course, an open world game with driving wouldn’t be complete without radio stations, and Final Fantasy XV doesn’t disappoint here, offering a selection of classic Final Fantasy songs from across the franchise’s entire history to cruise along to – we heard short snippets of the overworld theme from the first Final Fantasy game, as well as Sunleth Waterscape from XIII. As a huge fan of Final Fantasy music this is something that will make me very happy indeed, and I can imagine driving around the world for hours just listening and humming along to some classic FF tunes.

While driving around, we also see a car stopped at the side of the road, its occupants trying to flag down help, and it’s suggested that this is an example of some of the side content we’ll be seeing in the full game. Following that was a short clip of the party in battle, mostly showing off stuff that you’ll be familiar with if you played Episode Duscae last spring, with the addition of a short look at magic as we see Noctis manage to scare off an enormous Behemoth by casting Blizzara. Then we’re treated to a brief glimpse of an absolutely titanic Titan, and at this point it’s worth remembering that the summons in this game are going to be insane. We also saw a clip showcasing some of the beautiful, sprawling environments that we’ll be visiting throughout the world of Final Fantasy XV, including our first in-game look at the gorgeous, Venice-inspired city of Altissia. Final Fantasy XV has long been billed as “a Fantasy based on Reality’, but fans of the fantastical need not worry that the game will appear mundane; there seems to be plenty of fantastical elements and environments in there to justify the name, and you can see the clip shown last night below, courtesy of Youtuber YongYea. Honestly, it’s worth watching for the music alone, which is stunningly beautiful.

Before our final surprise of the night, there was time for a couple more announcements. First heard in the opening trailer, the theme song for Final Fantasy XV is a lush, orchestral reimagining of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me, performed by Florence and the Machine. I must admit that I thought it sounded incredibly out of place when it suddenly began, halfway through that trailer, even if does seem like an obvious song choice for a story about four friends heading out on an uncertain journey. But I think it’s going to grow on me. Florence Welch’s powerful vocal performance certainly sells the emotion of the piece, and as the trailer goes on it seems to fit more and more. If Square Enix must insist on this kind of thing, at least it’s a much better choice than Leona Lewis’ My Hands was for Final Fantasy XIII.

Perhaps most exciting of all, however, was the announcement of a new demo. This one isn’t tied to a purchase, unlike the Episode Duscae demo that accompanied Final Fantasy Type-0 HD last year, so it’s available for everyone to try on both PS4 and Xbox One. Titled the ‘Platinum Demo’, it begins with a strange premise; you control kid Noctis as he journeys through a dream, guided by Carbuncle as he makes his way to the royal citadel, armed only with a toy sword and a squeaky hammer. It sounds odd, but the good thing is you don’t have to wait to find out just how weird it is, as the demo is live on both storefronts right now. I haven’t yet had a chance to play it myself, so, like with the Brotherhood anime, I’ll be writing up some impressions, complete with video, a little later, much like I did last year with Episode Duscae.

And so we were coming to the end of the Uncovered event, with Director Hajime Tabata taking to the stage to announce the release date that we all already knew. This didn’t mean the stream ended without a surprise, however; Tabata had recently teased that the team had determined how to include airship travel in the game, a core FF motif that has been essentially missing from the last few main series titles that fans really want back. At the very end of an epic, extended trailer, we see the party’s flash car sprout wings and take to the skies. If I’m being honest, I found it to be a little goofy, as the car begins to transform and a pair of wings fold out before it rather quickly takes off. Hopefully it’s just one method of transport – the same trailer shows the boys speeding across the water in a yacht, for instance.

Still, the thought of driving, boating and flying around this massive world is tantalising, and with all of last night’s announcements still ringing in the ears, today is a good day to be a Final Fantasy fan. Square Enix seem hugely confident about the prospects of this long-in-development epic and its chances at winning back the limelight and returning to the enormous, world-conquering franchise it used to be. And I for one cannot wait to dive right in and experience it. I’ll have to wait until September of course, but what’s another six months when you’ve been dreaming of it for ten years?

See the epic extended trailer for Final Fantasy XV, complete with flying transformer car, below.

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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?

In the run-up to Gamescom, UK developer Ninja Theory had been teasing their new IP. The game, Hellblade, was announced on-stage at Sony’s conference via a sombre, eye-catching CGI trailer.

The first reaction many had to that teaser was that it looked like Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory’s 2007 PS3 exclusive. It’s not hard to see the similarities – the strange, mythical world, the female warrior protagonist, even the name. Ninja Theory have since made it clear that Hellblade bears no relation to Heavenly Sword, and when we take a look at how the game is being developed, it’s clear that it’s a very different beast in some very significant ways.

To begin with, Hellblade will be a smaller-scale project – it’ll be shorter than the developer’s previous titles and forgo a physical release. That’s not to say they’re taking their collective feet off the gas when it comes to production values; we expect a great audio-visual aspect to their games, and we’re promised Hellblade won’t disappoint in that respect. But perhaps the biggest point of difference here is that Hellblade won’t be tied to a publisher; it will be Ninja Theory’s first self-published console game, and, most importantly, it will allow the team to retain their own IP.

It’s a proposition that co-founder Tameem Antoniades calls “Independent AAA”. In a sense, Antoniades sees this as reclaiming the middle ground that we’ve lost over the last generation; as triple-A development costs rise, publishers seek to mitigate risk and more often than not this leads to homogenisation – if something’s a massive hit, other publishers will seek to emulate that success. Everyone wants a Call of Duty. Everyone wants a GTA.

This leads to less diversity in the market, which isn’t great for gamers, but it can also be destructive to the people that make those games. Most studios can’t compete with the funding enjoyed by the likes of Infinity Ward or Rockstar North, and attempting to respond to those mega-franchises carries its own risks – risks that can often be fatal. We’ve seen plenty of development houses close down over the last generation, even long-standing ones like Bizarre Creations or Sony Liverpool; even a mildly successful title in a genre that may have shrunk to a niche can kill a studio.

Being an independent developer, Antoniades knows his team can’t compete on a level playing field with the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted. But equally, he’s not about to let his studio join the list of casualties that has resulted from what he calls the “go big or go home” world of AAA console development. So he’s making a play for that abandoned middle ground. “It’s about self-publishing AAA-quality games that are narrower in focus, selling them for a fair price and connecting to your fans in a meaningful way,” he says. “It’s a place for developers like us who don’t fit comfortably in the mega-budget AAA space but who are not true indie developers.”

Looking back through NT’s history, it’s clear to see why this approach appeals to them. Hellblade will be the first of their games that they retain ownership of, which means that they have full control over where it goes and how it evolves. Over the years, fans have asked for sequels to Heavenly Sword or Enslaved, and though Ninja Theory would love to revisit these franchises, these characters, these worlds that they created, they can’t. Because to get those games made, they had to hand over ownership of them.

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They’ve also had to fight to keep their team together on a number of occasions, whether that be down to parent companies imploding, publishing deals going south or simply being unwilling to scale down the team after production, something that is an inherent part of AAA production. Ninja Theory have re-mortgaged houses, sought investment, and even walked away from precious IP to keep their team together as, in Antoniades’ words, “[w]e knew that the value of a creative company comes from the team-work, experience and talent of the people in it.” Testament to this, he says, is the fact that Enslaved, with only two-thirds the budget, had double the game content of Heavenly Sword, adding “[m]assively improved efficiency is the real value of keeping a team together.”

But it’s that ownership of their creative output that will no doubt appeal to Ninja Theory the most, giving them not only the freedom to decide their own future but also the freedom to actually green-light and create the games they want to make in the first place. Antoniades recounts reactions to his team’s pitches, saying that “[w]e’ve variously been told point blank that single-player story games are dead, that any art style other than realism is not commercial, and that melee games do not sell.” For a developer whose main focus is third-person story-driven melee action games, that’s obviously not what they want to hear.

Ownership of IP is only going to become more important for developers looking to safeguard their futures. In the world of AAA, we’ve recently seen some of the bigger independent studios manage to retain ownership of their projects – gamers may have been dismayed to see Bungie team up with Activision for Destiny, for instance, but crucially the Bellevue studio owns that franchise. It’s theirs. Likewise, when shopping around Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac went with the deal that allowed them to keep the IP, as their usual partner Sony had previously requested ownership.

But smaller developers don’t really have the clout to demand the same, not if they want funding to get their projects made. So smaller scale projects and digital distribution is an important direction for them, making the ability to self-publish that Sony and Microsoft have brought to their new consoles an enormous boon. At the very least, it means not having to worry about the costs of manufacturing discs and packaging, or the traditional distribution costs that come with physical product. Money saved elsewhere can be fed back into development of the important part of the project – the game itself.

As a fan of their previous releases, I’m both looking forward to getting my hands on Hellblade and hopeful that this “Independent AAA” focus works out for Ninja Theory. Perhaps if other smaller developers see them having success there they will also be inspired to give it a try, like Just Add Water (whose Lorne Lanning Antoniades cites as an inspiration for his company’s direction), who released Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! just last month to rave reviews, proving that there is a space there for developers to target. This should hopefully mean more developers making the games they want to make, rather than the games they have to make, enriching game development for all of us.

If you’re interested in the development of Hellblade, the history of Ninja Theory, or an insight into AAA development, it’s worth checking out the Hellblade development blog.