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You know a game takes its scares seriously when the first thing it asks you to do is turn off all the lights and refrain from tearing your gaze from the screen. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows even implores you to promise not to break these rules. You might wish you did.

Much like last year’s Yomawari: Night Alone, Midnight Shadows begins with a little girl and her dog. While we, unfortunately, had to witness the demise of the former protagonist’s cute little pup Poro, here we’re introduced to Yui, who has headed up into the mountains near her quiet little town to bury her beloved pet. I think Nippon Ichi might have something against dogs.

If you’re new to the Yomawari games, you might find yourself somewhat mollified by the cutesy chibi character designs and beautiful hand-drawn art. Do not be fooled. This is a bleak world where bad things happen. Much like the first game, that charming art gives way to an oppressive atmosphere, exaggerated by some incredibly minimalist audio – which frequently uses nothing but natural sounds like the rush of a river or the wind through the boughs of a tree – and some severe vignetting that darkens the periphery of your vision, forcing your focus to the centre of the screen, and hiding the terrors of the night in deep shadow. This is not a relaxing game to play. Even before you’ve seen anything out of the ordinary it’s put you on edge.

Of course, you’ll discover very early on that things are not normal in this town. The opening of Yomawari: Midnight Shadows – which I don’t want to spoil – might be the bleakest thing I’ve seen in a video game, and I honestly still don’t quite know how to feel about it. Dressing this segment up as the opening tutorial amplifies its effect substantially; “Ok,” you think, “the game’s teaching me how to play. I just hold X to pick this up. I push this over there. There were go. Aaaand… Oh. Oh God.” You’re lulled into a false sense of security, because you’re just being taught the controls, right? Nothing bad can happen in a tutorial. Yet with a few simple button presses, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows makes you complicit in a genuinely shocking act. And you’re only ten minutes in.

Returning players will note many similarities beyond just a little girl and her dog. Indeed, Midnight Shadows both looks and plays almost identically to the 2015 original, and that’s not a bad thing. What we have here is kind of an isometric 2D Silent Hill, where you’re tasked to explore an apparently-normal town where things have somehow gone very wrong. After the opening segment, we’re re-introduced to Yui, who has come to the mountain overlooking town with her friend Haru to watch a fireworks display. It turns out Haru is moving away and the girls are saddened that they will soon be separated. Haru, of course, doesn’t want to leave her friend, and declares that she’s not going anywhere. She’s going to stay with Yui forever.

As darkness falls and the girls head home through the woods, they begin to hear strange noises. Eerie apparitions flitter in the corners of their vision, and finally they hear a voice. Armed with a torch, Yui volunteers to go and take a look, and instructs Haru to hide in the bushes. Heading through the woods alone, she comes across something lying in the middle of the path. Bending to pick it up, she realises it’s the red leash she had used to walk her dog. We’re instructed to jump into the inventory to view it, so we do just that, reading the little text description and OH GOD WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!

Christ. You’re not even safe in the menus.

We cut back to Haru, who emerges from the bush to find Yui gone, her discarded torch lying on the ground nearby. She sets off through the night to find her friend.

As you make your way around town, investigating points of interest for useful clues, you’ll note the cues Yomawari: Midnight Shadows takes from the earlier Silent Hill games. The inspiration is apparent too in that bleak, oppressive atmosphere, and there’s the roaming monsters and spirits that appear to block your path and chase you down. In Yomawari however, you feel more vulnerable than in, well, the vast majority of games, to be honest. It’s not just because you’re a little kid that can’t fight back, seemingly abandoned and alone in a town with no friends, no adults, no signs of normal life. Yomawari uses the children’s innocence to underscore just how miserable all this is; there are no adults around, strange spirits are roaming the streets, and yet for all that, the town looks normal, and Haru doesn’t even question it, doesn’t wonder where her parents are. She just wants to find Yui again.

The foreboding mood is fostered by that crushing sense of creeping dread that the best of Japanese horror cinema does so well, where even mundane, every day things will set your teeth to chattering, like the rustling of litter or the buzzing of a sodium streetlight. And of course there’s the scares. The majority tend to consist of jump scares, and I’m usually pretty immune to those, but there’s something about this game, something that makes me jump out of my skin whenever some multi-limbed grinning horror bursts from a seemingly-innocent little alleyway and chases me down a dark street when all I want to do is get back to the safety of home.

Luckily, Haru can hide in some of the scenery around town. If you see a bush or an A-board, you can duck behind it to escape the night, and you’ll see your chosen hiding place illuminated in the centre of a black background, the roving terrors that are following you picked out in red as they near your hiding place. You’ll hear Haru’s heartbeat pounding in your ears as they get closer, and even though you’re sure they can’t pull you from safety, your already-frayed nerves will be at breaking point until they start to move away, and you think it might be safe to emerge and continue your journey.

When you do, you’re just back out in the night, with the monsters, the dark, and the rushing of the wind.

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Phantom Dust is now available on Xbox One and Windows 10. The game made it onto both stores late last night, after some unexpected teething problems. I decided to jump right in and play the first half-hour or so.
 
Phantom Dust kicks off with an intro cutscene that I can only describe as ‘very Futatsugi’, reminiscent as it is of the director’s more well-known Panzer Dragoon. A voice over tells us that no one knows when or why the world changed, after the surface was poisoned by a mysterious dust that brought aggressive apparitions and erased the memories of the human population. Driven underground to survive, people abandoned their cities. But some people were affected differently. To them, the dust gifted psychic powers, and these Espers now roam the surface looking for relics of the past, and clues to the world that was lost. We see two mysterious new Espers discovered in strange stone sarcophagi, and I have to admit, my mind immediately jumped back to Azel’s discovery in Panzer Dragoon Saga.
 
After that, you’re into the game proper, and cast as one of these two new amnesiacs. After choosing a name – because no one can remember theirs, of course – you set out to help the inhabitants of the world beneath the surface, working for an organisation called Vision. I played up to the end of chapter 1, where you have a short showdown with a character that is obviously going to become very important, and so far I’m having a lot of fun. It certainly seems like there’s a lot to learn, though. For the uninitiated, Phantom Dust is a third-person arena combat game where you use a variety of skills that periodically appear near your starting position. These will later be drawn from your player-defined arsenal, taking inspiration from collectible card games, though in the early stages you’re given some beginner skills just to get your head around the various mechanics in play.

There’s a fair bit to remember with these skills – it’s not just about what they do, but how they do it. For instance, range has an effect here, with certain skills being more effective at certain distances, which is denoted by your reticle colour (red for close range, yellow for mid and green for long range). As an example, Bullet of Fire will throw a flaming attack in a straight line to your enemy, but will likely miss if you aren’t at medium distance, while laser is a long-range attack that fires out in a curve, often hitting scenery if you aren’t paying enough attention to your surroundings (and dishing out some pleasing environmental destruction as something of a consolation). You quickly start to take mental notes for each skill, but so far there’s been maybe a dozen in play, and apparently the game contains over three hundred!

Hmm. I wonder what they drink in a post-apocalyptic world covered in crazy dust.

Of course, it’s not all about offense, you’ll need to try to upset your opponents attacks too. You’ll get some defense skills for this, which, if timed well, can really save your bacon. An early favourite is About Face, which captures your enemy’s attack and sends it right back at them. Firing off your own attack immediately afterwards seems like a useful early-game combo to get used to. I mentioned earlier that skills will periodically appear at your spawn location, and this is important because you can only hold a small handful of these abilities at once, with some being single-use. You can overwrite these with new skills whenever they’re available to mix up your strategy.

I really am still at the very beginning of the learning stage in Phantom Dust – Chapter 1 is basically an extended tutorial – but I can’t wait to get back to it and try out more skills and strategies. As a lifelong Panzer Dragoon fan, it feels great to finally play what was effectively a lost Yukio Futatsugi game, and for free, too! Phantom Dust may be 13 years old now, but it’s still a very striking game; the textures clean up very well indeed, giving the image a very clean presentation despite its age, and the art direction and sense of atmosphere is excellent. The music is also very distinct, taking some recognisable classical pieces and messing with them a bit so that they’re just wrong enough to make you feel a touch uneasy, and the very first sound you hear on the title screen is so Twin Peaks it immediately gets under my skin. I’m intrigued by the story – Futatsugi has always been good with the whole lost civilization/ancient knowledge thing – and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

As I said the other day when the final release was announced, it’s a fantastic idea to give this away for free and get it into people’s hands, especially as it had such a limited release in the past. Hopefully, with more people able to try it out, it’ll strengthen calls for a new entry and get Microsoft to really think about trying again. And if they do, I really hope they get Futatsugi involved.

Keep an eye on A Game with Chums, where we’ll be playing the game in the coming weeks!

Less than two weeks ago, we saw our first footage of the HD re-release of Yukio Futatsugi’s cult Xbox classic, Phantom Dust. At the time, I wondered how Microsoft might go about making the game available to players, as Creative Director Adam Isgreen hinted that fans would be very happy about the price. ‘Perhaps we might see it launch on Games with Gold in June,’ I thought.

Well, now we know, thanks to Xbox marketing head Aaron Greenberg, who dropped this little nugget of news on Twitter just minutes ago.

Well that came out of nowhere, huh!? It’s great that Microsoft is getting it out into everyone’s hands, and a good month before E3 too, so that it doesn’t get drowned out by all the news from the Expo. As this will be the first time the game will be released in Europe, I’m excited to finally get to play it, and I really hope it catches on and gives Microsoft a good reason to get the reboot back into production.

One of the original Xbox’s cult favourites is coming to Xbox One and Windows 10 soon, and, courtesy of Polygon, we now have our first look at gameplay.

A quirky mix of Arena battler and Collectible Card Game, Phantom Dust was a Japanese exclusive for Microsoft’s original big black box, made by Sega alumnus Yukio Futatsugi, creator of the excellent Panzer Dragoon series. Sadly, the game never saw release in Europe, and was not made widely available in the States either, causing many to miss out on it. Thankfully, it’s now getting a second chance.

Co-developed by retro specialists Code Mystics, Phantom Dust HD brings the game to Xbox One in full, native 1080p (with support for arbitrary resolutions on the PC side), expands the screen ratio from its original 4:3 to 16:9, and brings back multiplayer functionality over Xbox Live. Adam Isgreen, Creative Director at Microsoft Studios Publishing, is careful not to label the game a remaster, instead choosing to call it a re-release, and he notes that, with the source code for the game lost, there was a limit to what the team at Code Mystics could do to bring the game up to date. Having said that, it sounds like the new HD version is using higher resolution development assets rather than the compressed textures and FMV files found on the original retail disc, and it’s clear to see that Phantom Dust now looks better than it ever has, sporting a much cleaner presentation.

Some changes have also been made to the way players build a card deck, with some free DLC aimed at getting players straight into multiplayer without having to cut their teeth in the campaign first. To facilitate this, players will now have separate saves for both modes; while single-player unlocks will feed into your multiplayer arsenal, multiplayer-earned cards won’t be available in your campaign run. While it may be disappointing to some that Phantom Dust HD isn’t a full-on remaster, with these and some other quality of life changes in place, it’s safe to say that it’s also more than a mere port of the original.

One point of contention will surely be that the game still runs at 30 frames per second, but Isgreen notes that the original was hard-coded to that refresh rate and that the team were unable to change it. “The entire engine was built around the game running at 30 FPS,” Isgreen told fans on Neogaf. “Everything in the code and data is either frames @ 30, assumes 30, or hard-coded to expect 30 FPS.” On the plus side, Phantom Dust HD will be a Play Anywhere title, so players that have access to both Xbox One and Windows 10 will be able to buy it once and have it available on both platforms.

The route Phantom Dust has taken on its way to Xbox One has been rather circuitous. At E3 2014, Microsoft announced a reboot with a flashy CGI trailer – a CGI trailer that it later transpired developer Darkside Games had never seen. The game was put on hold in 2015, resulting in the small developer closing its doors – Kotaku covered the story from the developer’s perspective. Microsoft insisted that they still had intentions to develop the title, but nothing has been heard since.

At E3 last year, in a post-conference stream with Geoff Keighley, General Manager of Microsoft Studios Publishing Shannon Loftis announced a port of the original game, to the surprise of many. It seemed to some that this was a sop to those disappointed by the cancellation of the reboot, but it was later revealed that Loftis had funded the port with some leftover budget from another project, and had kept Head of Xbox Phil Spencer out of the loop until she had something to show him. Spencer is a big proponent of the game himself, so it seems Phantom Dust‘s XBO outing is something of a passion project for many on the Xbox team.

Quite when Phantom Dust will release is yet to be confirmed, but Spencer has previously stated the idea was to have it out before E3. Isgreen also told Polygon that fans will be happy about the price; many will already be expecting a low price point, given its mid-2000’s looks, but the Microsoft exec also suggested that the idea is to get as many people playing the game as possible, suggesting a low barrier to entry. Perhaps we’ll actually see it launch on Games with Gold in the near future?

Many will also be wondering what this means for the future of the franchise, if it indeed has one. Could this be testing the waters for another crack at a reboot, should players respond positively to it? Time will tell. But with E3 on the horizon, and an interview with Phil Spencer, where he spoke of investing in first party, still fresh in their minds, fans will surely be hoping for some good news this June. For my part, I hope that Phantom Dust and the recent Voodoo Vince re-release are the start of a renewed focus on some of Microsoft’s older IPs.

Not content with creating just one new class of enemies, Gears of War 4 developer The Coalition has this week unveiled a second all-new faction. This time, they’re robots.

The unveil comes in a new campaign video, courtesy of IGN, which features grumpy old man Marcus Fenix leading the new generation through his burning home, while fussing about his tomatoes – a fixation he has apparently inherited from his old buddy Dom. The eight minute clip gives us our first look at the ‘DeeBees’, robotic shock troops that come in at least four flavours. First up is a small, rolling drone that seeks the player out before exploding, much like Gears 2‘s ticker, and just like the tickers you can swiftly boot them clear. Next up are two humanoid units, one a fairly normal-sized adversary, the other a much larger, sturdier variant called a ‘heavy’, which comes equipped with a short dash to help it evade fire, close distance or even hurdle straight over cover. Lastly, and most interestingly, there’s the Guardian, a shielded airborne unit somewhat reminiscent of Halo 2‘s Enforcer sentinels.

Of course, this new class also brings fresh weaponry to the fight, and all four new guns look like a treat to use. The Enforcer immediately calls to mind Halo 5‘s SMG, though perhaps a little rangier, while the chunky, rectangular Overkill looks like some kind of super-shotgun, absolutely shredding enemies at close range. Then there’s the Embar, a railgun-type rifle that charges up to deliver enormous damage at more of a distance. Lastly, we have a successor to the Mulcher, a triple-barrelled monster called the Tri-Shot that seems like an amalgamation of the aforementioned chaingun and Gears 3‘s utterly ridiculous One-Shot.

One thing that comes to mind watching this new footage is quite how powerful these new weapons look, and it makes me wonder if that means we’ll see these new enemies used fairly sparingly throughout the campaign. Of course, there’s the question of where these ‘DeeBees’ come from, and I wonder if that name is itself a hint, with their creator perhaps being the original trilogy’s resident smart-arse Damon Baird. He’s portrayed throughout the series as a man who can make anything with two sticks and a piece of old gum, so it stands to reason he’d be building things for the new government in a post-war world. They’re clearly out to get JD, Del and Kait – the former two having deserted – and I wonder if they serve as a means to make the Coalition of Ordered Governments something of an antagonist without the developers having to resort to human-on-human combat, something fans didn’t take to very well with 2013’s Judgement.

Do not mess with this man's tomatoes

Do not mess with this man’s tomatoes

While the DeeBees are something new thematically, they do mostly fall back on established archetypes, and along with the Swarm drones’ familiarity to the dearly-departed Locust, fans may be feeling that The Coalition are playing it a little too safe. Though as Rod Ferguson, head of The Coalition, has previously said, the team need to do it right before they can do it differently – with their first game, they need to prove they understand the fundamentals of Gears before they go too crazy with it. Happily, everything we’ve seen of Gears of War 4 so far suggests that the Vancouver team know exactly what they’re doing, with their game looking like a proper Gears campaign, but with the addition of some shiny new toys – and some seriously inclement weather – to play with.

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.

Last week, Microsoft held a media event to showcase their upcoming Spring games to press. Xbox head Phil Spencer had previously noted that this was merely an event to allow the gaming media to get to grips with the company’s upcoming games, and stressed that fans shouldn’t expect any massive announcements. Nonetheless, some interesting news has filtered out this week, after the short press embargo expired on Tuesday.

A big focus of the preview event was the upcoming Quantum Break, out on Xbox One and Windows 10 on April 5th, while Dark Souls 3, Capybara’s top-down adventure Below and a handful of other titles were also available to try out. But there was still plenty of room for the odd new announcement. Read on to get all the news delivered direct to your eyeballs.

Gears of War hits Windows 10 Store
We’ve known for a while that Gears of War Ultimate Edition, The Coalition’s through rebuilding of the 2006 cover shooter, was coming to the Windows Store at some point. We just didn’t have a definitive date. Rather surprisingly, as the embargo lifted on Tuesday afternoon, the game also became immediately available to download, and for the very reasonable sum of £22.79, at that.

Of course, some will remain sceptical of Microsoft’s ambitions when it comes to PC gaming, having had their fingers burnt with the company’s previous attempt, Games for Windows Live. And while Gears of War Ultimate Edition offers a range of graphics options, including support for resolutions up to 4k, limitations in the Universal Windows Platform mean that things like GSYNC, multi-GPU support, modding or even Fraps won’t work.

Still, the fact that Microsoft are beginning to offer some of their bigger IPs on PC is a good first step, and hopefully they can continue to work on and improve their store offering. Spencer is also well aware of the limitations and told PC Gamer that the team are committed to buffing out some of the issues, saying: “…I don’t want people to look at this as a passing fancy on our part of, ‘can we just quickly port some console games over to PC and hope to make a little bit of money?’ It’s not all about that. We are the Windows company, and ensuring that the Windows gaming ecosystem is strong is important, and that means supporting these features.”

Forza Apex announced for Windows 10
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Microsoft also announced Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, a free version of last September’s Xbox One racer for Windows 10 PC. A slimmed-down take on the original, Apex will see release this Spring and take advantage of DirectX 12 and offer rendering resolutions up to 4k. While it doesn’t have the breadth of content of Forza 6 on the console, it offers 20 tracks across six different locations, with a total of 63 cars to race across them, though these have not been fully detailed yet.

Although the game is free to users, Microsoft have confirmed that Apex won’t be driven by microtransactions, and that you will be able to unlock new cars, tracks and events simply by playing. So why is it free? Well, the publisher also announced, via IGN, that all future Forza titles will also see release on Windows PC. Apex will, then, act as a taster to get a PC-gaming audience interested in the series as it looks to establish itself on the platform.

Ori and the Blind Forest Definitive Edition lands this month
One of our favourite games of last year is finally getting a definitive edition. Originally announced at Gamescom last year, Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition brings a sizeable new play area called Black Root Burrows, which expands on the past of Ori’s mother figure, Naru, as well as a couple of new abilities for Ori to wield throughout the game. To this end, the entire game has been rebalanced to a degree, to make the new moves usable across the entire game world. Moon Studios have also added a few more difficulty modes – easy, hard, and ‘one life’ – as well as greatly expanded the existing game’s theatre mode, weaving in plenty of behind the scenes material.

Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition will launch on Xbox One, Windows 10 and Steam on March 11th, and there will be an upgrade path for existing owners.

Killer Instinct Season 3 hits Xbox One and Windows 10 this month
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Another one we’ve known about, but simply been awaiting a release date for, is Season 3 of Microsoft’s fighting game, Killer Instinct. On March 29th, the game finally hits PC, on the same day Season 3 launches on Xbox One. Season 3 will bring eight new fighters to Killer Instinct, with four available at launch – Killer Instinct 2 veterans Kim Wu and Tusk return, while Rash from Battletoads and Halo‘s Arbiter make their series debuts.

Pricing has yet to be confirmed, but considering that previous seasons were around the £16 mark, it seems a safe bet to assume a similar price point. Additionally, if you’ve already bought the game on Xbox One, you’ll also get all your content (and progress!) at no extra cost on PC. The game will remain free to play (with one rotating character) on Windows 10, so if you’ve wanted to try the game out, you’ll get your chance in just a few weeks’ time.

Phantom Dust lives!
Originally announced back at E3 2014, many assumed that Microsoft’s reboot of the cult original Xbox action/strategy/card-combat game was dead after the small independent team developing it were forced to close their doors last February (as reported by Kotaku). Since then, Microsoft have been fairly quiet on the subject, with the last piece of news coming from Xbox head of Marketing Aaron Greenberg, who said that the game wasn’t currently in active development.

At the Spring Showcase, Polygon sat down with Phil Spencer and asked whether Phantom Dust‘s fortunes had changed. While he answered in the negative, he reaffirmed that the project remains on the table, telling Polygon: “… we started down a path with a developer, and it didn’t work out. There’s no — on my side, at least — nothing negative about that: it just doesn’t always work out. [Microsoft Studios head of publishing] Shannon Loftis and I talk often about what we want to do with Phantom Dust, so it is a thing from the conversations. She has ideas that she’s working on that she won’t show me yet.”

Most importantly, it seems the game’s rather tumultuous development may mean that original creator Yukio Futatsugi (of Panzer Dragoon fame) could return to the project: “He would definitely be attached to anything we would do with Phantom Dust, assuming his schedule allowed for it and everything else,” said Spencer. “I’d say from the Japanese sensibility he has, being a Japanese game designer, I’d want to make sure [he’s involved] – because that is kind of core to what that franchise is about.”

Xbox dashboard March update, features and rollout
Microsoft have been doing a great job of updating the Xbox One dashboard and OS, and that continues this month. The new update, out now, brings achievements back to the guide, boosts party chat from 12 to 16 users, adds options for GameDVR “Xbox, record that” clip length, and, perhaps most importantly, makes backward compatible Xbox 360 games directly available from the Xbox One store.

Previously, if a user wished to buy a digital copy of a backward compatible title, they would have to either do so on the Xbox website or an Xbox 360, and many have wondered if the inability to easily buy 360 games on the XBO has led to publishers holding back some of their bigger games for the backward compatibility scheme. Hopefully we’ll now see the games that sit at the top of the uservoice voting page, like Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops, begin to filter through.

See the full feature set of the Xbox One March update below.