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