A sting in the tail

At E3 2016, Project Scor­pio was the big story. If only Mi­crosoft had worked out how to tell it


Mi­crosoft stum­bles into some fa­mil­iar prob­lems at E3 in LA

Well, to be fair, it’s a new per­sonal best. Three-and-a-half years af­ter Mi­crosoft mess­ily un­veiled Xbox One, it went to E3 2016 and botched the an­nounce­ment of not one, but two con­soles in one fell swoop. For 85 min­utes or so, we were ex­cited for Xbox One S, with its smaller, pret­tier form fac­tor and re­designed con­troller, its in­te­grated power sup­ply, its sup­port for HDR and 4K dis­plays. Then Mi­crosoft spent the next hour and a half ex­plain­ing that, as p part of its Playy Any­where ini­tia­tive, we’d be able to play al­most every first­party game showed on its stage on the PC we al­ready own. Then Phil Spencer – the man who had sup­pos­edly ush­ered in a smarter, more fo­cused era for the Xbox di­vi­sion – closed out the show by an­nounc­ing Project Scor­pio, t the most pow­er­ful con­sole ever made, a six­ter­aflop mon­ster that didn’t so much take the wind out of Xbox One S’s sails as strike it with light­ning be­fore c cap­siz­ing it in the eye of a hur­ri­cane. Som Some­where you sensed Spencer’s pre­dece pre­de­ces­sor Don Mat­trick, ly­ing on his bed of 1 100-dol­lar bills in his house made of unso un­sold Kinects, al­lowed him­self a chu chuckle.

Why would any­one bothe bother with a new-look Xbox One in 2016 when they will only want to re­place it in 12 months’ time? Mi­crosoft did its best to get the mes­sag­ing back on course; sadly, as we all know, Mi­crosoft’s ‘best’ is to roy­ally cock ev­ery­thing up and just con­fuse ev­ery­one even more. Key to Spencer’s at­tempted jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the whole sorry mess was the no­tion of ‘no one left be­hind’, an oddly mil­i­taris­tic way of say­ing that Scor­pio will play ev­ery­thing avail­able on Xbox One, and vice versa. It sounded fair enough un­til gen­eral man­ager of pub­lish­ing Shan­non Loftis said there could be Scor­pio ex­clu­sives af­ter all – it was up to devel­op­ers. Not so, Spencer in­sisted. Then The Coali­tion’s Rod Fer­gus­son said there was ex­tra CPU and GPU head­room in Xbox One S and his team were tak­ing ad­van­tage of it in Gears Of War 4. Def­i­nitely not, Spencer said. Yet Spencer’s big­gest cold-wa­ter pour came when he ad­mit­ted that, un­less you own a 4K TV, “Scor­pio is not go­ing to do any­thing for you”. Mi­crosoft is mak­ing the most pow­er­ful con­sole of all time, yet the ex­tent of its am­bi­tion for it is an in­creased pixel count. Spencer, in­cred­i­bly, would later try to back­track on that as well, say­ing some games could look bet­ter on Scor­pio even when con­nected to a 1080p dis­play. Games that use dy­namic res­o­lu­tion scal­ing on the launch-model Xbox One, such as Halo 5, will be able to run at an un­bro­ken 1080p on Scor­pio. Oth­ers will sim­ply look bet­ter by virtue of be­ing down­sam­pled from 4K to 1080p. Still he of­fered lit­tle to jus­tify the pur­chase of what he ad­mits is meant as a pre­mium prod­uct for high-end users and will be priced as such. Mi­crosoft re­fused our exec in­ter­view re­quest for E3 this year. Ex­pe­ri­ence tells us that this is rarely a good sign, and so it proved. The com­pany may, in hind­sight, wish it had made that a univer­sal pol­icy.

Its con­fer­ence, even ig­nor­ing the mud­dle of the hard­ware an­nounce­ments by which it was book­ended, had few high points. The Nike iD-style cus­tom con­troller project (see p16) is a smart idea that was in­tro­duced with a very as­pi­ra­tional, Ap­ple-like video. Mi­crosoft’s ongoing work on the Xbox plat­form yielded news of two ex­cel­lent sys­tem-level fea­tures: a Look­ing For Group func­tion and tour­na­ment sup­port. And our friends on the con­ti­nent will be over­joyed by a new lan­guage in­de­pen­dence set­ting, mean­ing that play­ers across the Low Coun­tries and Scan­di­navia, most of whom speak bet­ter English than we do, will no longer have to suf­fer through phoned-in lo­calised voice act­ing. That these are the high­lights, how­ever, says rather a lot.

It’s of­ten sug­gested that Mi­crosoft suf­fers at E3 be­cause it goes first, tak­ing to the stage first thing on Mon­day morn­ing and so giv­ing Sony the rest of the day to work out how best to pull the rug out from un­der its ri­val. This year it de­cided to also give Sony a year and a half to de­cide how it is to counter the

Spencer ad­mit­ted that, un­less you own a 4K TV, “Scor­pio is not go­ing to do any­thing for you”

We hope Rare finds Sea Of Thieves’ heart quickly, lest the game go the way of Fable Leg­ends

threat of Scor­pio, since Mi­crosoft has been good enough to de­tail its specs.

Mi­crosoft may not have known what Sony was go­ing to show this year, but it had seen the re­ac­tion to its ri­val’s for-theages show­ing in 2015, when it had fo­cused squarely on games and fan­boy wish ful­fil­ment. Twelve months later, the Xbox maker could still not come up with a re­sponse. Se­quels were ev­ery­where, and none raised the pulse. Even over­look­ing the fact that every sin­gle

game on Mi­crosoft’s stage had some­how leaked in ad­vance of the show, this was a turgid lot. Is there a less in­spir­ing name for a videogame than

Gears Of War 4? Maybe Halo Wars 2. All this would have been eas­ier to for­give were Mi­crosoft fo­cus­ing its re­sources on Scor­pio’s launch lineup, but of course there’s no such thing. The con­sole’s only likely sys­tem seller is a 4K TV. As the re­cent can­cel­la­tions of Fable

Leg­ends and Project Spark show, the Mi­crosoft of 2016 holds no truck for any­thing but a sure-fire suc­cess. An­other raft of se­quels might look ac­cept­able on a Red­mond spread­sheet, but on the Los An­ge­les stage they make for mis­er­able view­ing. When was the last time this com­pany truly took a risk with a game? Well, Project Spark and Fable Leg­ends, re­ally, which rather says it all. Rare’s

Sea Of Thieves stood out, at least – a new IP and an am­bi­tious con­cept for which show-floor feed­back was uni­ver­sally pos­i­tive, al­beit with the caveat that no one is en­tirely sure what the game is. We’ve heard that be­fore, and it didn’t go well. We hope Rare finds Sea Of

Thieves’ heart quickly, lest the game go the way of Fable Leg­ends, and the stu­dio be­hind it the way of Lion­head.

Sony, mean­while, re­turned af­ter five years away to its for­mer E3 home of the Shrine Au­di­to­rium, and em­ployed a live orches­tra to add some gen­uine, much-needed at­mos­phere to what is of­ten a drawnout, very cor­po­rate day of press con­fer­ences. Yet the com­pany’s true mas­ter­stroke came the week be­fore, when SIE pres­i­dent An­drew House con­firmed the ex­is­tence of PlaySta­tion Neo but said that it would not fea­ture at E3. House would later ad­mit that this was in recog­ni­tion of the way Ap­ple has changed our ex­pec­ta­tions of hard­ware an­nounce­ments – some­thing that Mi­crosoft would have done well to take note of, too.

With hard­ware off the ta­ble, Sony was able to re­peat the ap­proach that worked so well in 2015. This year’s show may have lacked the three-hit show­stop­per of The Last Guardian,

Shen­mue III and the FFVII re­make, but you can’t pos­si­bly keep that hit rate up. It had its mo­ments any­way, not least the rock­star ar­rival of Hideo Ko­jima, there to un­veil

Death Strand­ing. Baf­fling as his trailer – knocked to­gether in two months and show­ing a naked, per­for­mance-cap­tured Nor­man Ree­dus cry­ing and cud­dling a dead baby – surely was, it was still eas­ier to un­der­stand than the rap­tur­ous re­sponse that greeted news of HD re­mas­ters of the first three Crash

Bandi­coot games. E3 does these reactions every so of­ten – we will never for­get the year an Ubisoft at­tendee whooped and hollered as a guil­lo­tine dropped in an As­sas­sin’s Creed demo – but rarely have we felt like such out­siders.

Hideo Ko­jima’s ar­rival at Sony’s E3 show was a big mo­ment, and not only for the per­son in the gantry charged with light­ing up the floor to match his foot­steps Sony’s show yielded a price and date for PSVR. Due in Oc­to­ber for £349/$399, it beats Rift and Vive for af­ford­abil­ity, if not for power

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