With Nintendo abstaining from the traditional pre-show conference schedule, Los Angeles’ E3 2013 became the perfect battleground for the intense rivalry between the remaining two hardware juggernauts. E3 has always been a histrionic affair and yet the obligatory blaring dubstep and frenzied light shows that introduced the pre-show conferences belied the fact that this year’s event was a much more streamlined and focused affair than usual. Perhaps out of the necessity to impress, both Microsoft and Sony gave little to no mention of profit margins, detailed hardware specifications or superfluous motion-control additions. Instead, E3 2013 was encouragingly first and foremost about one thing: videogames.
After the Xbox One’s game-shy reveal in May, Microsoft’s E3 conference was the perfect place to convince the world that their next-generation offering won’t just be a glorified TiVo box that would make a Betamax player look minimalist.
Thankfully the word television was uttered only a handful of times at their latest showcase event and aside from an awkward moment of car porn, a terribly ill-judged line of banter directed at one of the few female participants seen in the entire trade show and a pair of technical hiccups, the Xbox One conference was an impressive mix of established names, new IP and platform exclusives.
The traditionally Sony-friendly Insomniac Games (creators of the popular PlayStation exclusive Ratchet and Clank and Resistance franchises) raised a few smiles with the brazen Sunset Overdrive, a kaleidoscopic open-world shooter that promises to bring their trademark humour and ingenuity exclusively to Xbox One. Similarly, the decision to have Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain open the conference signalled a general shift that will see a fair amount of game series thought of as synonymous with the PlayStation brand go multiplatform for this generation of consoles. In fact, with D4 from the idiosyncratic auteur developer Swery65, Crimson Dragon, Quantum Break, Ryse: Son of Rome and, most notably, Respawn Entertainment’s much-anticipated first game Titanfall all confirmed as Xbox One exclusives, Sony’s current-gen advantage of console specific experiences appears to be waning.
There were some major disappointments however. The CGI teaser for the next Halo was farcically derivative and the reanimated Dead Rising 3 appears to have abandoned the series’ characteristic frivolity in favour of a drab colour palette and a grim, dreary atmosphere.
The infuriatingly throwaway reveal of a much-requested Killer Instinct reboot was also exacerbated further when it was revealed after the show that the game would be free-to-play and is in-development by Double Helix, a developer whose back catalogue I would charitably describe as being poor-to-mediocre.
Perhaps the most galling moment of the last few days came from Microsoft’s Corporate Vice-President Phil Harrison, whose claim that “nobody has been more committed to supporting independent game development than Xbox” felt more than a little duplicitous following May’s announcement that independent developers, unlike Sony’s PlayStation 3 and the newly revealed PlayStation 4, still cannot self-publish on Xbox One.
In reality, the disparity between the systems on this front is one of the most blatant and Sony revelled in this fact by bringing out a succession of PlayStation 4 exclusive independent games as well as giving centre stage to Supergiant Games’ artful, sci-fi wonder Transistor. Sony’s other exclusive showings, with the exception of the intriguing Victorian-era steampunk shooter The Order: 1866, were already fairly familiar with Infamous: Second Son and confirmed launch titles Killzone: Shadow Fall and Drive Club all receiving a little more attention following their reveal back in February.
Yet, if Sony’s comparative lack of first-party sluggers was disappointing, their gameplay demos of the most anticipated multiplatform titles of the next generation showed a profound level of confidence in their hardware. Square Enix went some way towards assuaging an entire generation’s worth of ill-will by rebranding Final Fantasy Versus XIII as the official fifteenth instalment in the venerable franchise, while Kingdom Hearts 3 answered the prayers of ardent JRPG fans clamouring for a true sequel to the PS2 originals. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and the consistently impressive Watch Dogs both boast additional content on PS4, but it was the formerly first-party Microsoft stalwarts Bungie that promised the most however, by reiterating that their opulent first-person MMO sci-fi shooter Destiny, will offer significant bonuses to PS4 owners.
It was the reveal of the PlayStation 4 itself that probably should have been the real talking point of the entire show. The fact that it wasn’t was not due to a bungled reveal or even the console’s angular, unremarkably inoffensive design. Equally, the price and release schedules for the two consoles made a fair few headlines (with the PlayStation 4’s RRP of £349 undercutting the Xbox One’s £429), but these won’t be what E3 2013 will be remembered for.
Throughout the entirety of Microsoft’s conference there was an unavoidable sense that there was a white elephant in the room and that the Xbox One showing at E3 already had to be something extraordinary. Back in April I commented on a worrying quantity of rumours surrounding the then-unnamed Xbox One regarding always-online infrastructures, DRM and the used games market. Unfortunately, following Xbox One’s initial reveal on May 21, news trickled out from Microsoft that these rumours had some basis in fact and the media/consumer backlash since has been relentless. After weeks of confusion it was officially explained by Microsoft that the Xbox One requires an internet connection once every 24 hours and that games will be licensed with discs used for a one-off mandatory install. Publishers have also been given the authority to deny or charge a fee for the loaning of games and trade-ins, of which the latter will be restricted to what Microsoft calls “participating retailers”.
There are multiple sinister clauses to this potentially draconian system and judging by the reaction of many gamers it would seem that even the world’s finest interactive media would not be enough to convince some that the Xbox One would be worth investing in.
And so it was left to Sony to outline their stance on used games and content ownership in general, a task that the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Jack Tretton relished at the close of their conference. In a surreal moment that brought relief to many and disappointment to few, Sony were greeted with some of the most rapturous applause that E3 has ever seen not by presenting something new, but by keeping things as they always have been. No restrictions on used games, lending, renting and no online requirements or check ins.
While they may have snuck in the announcement that online multiplayer now requires a PS Plus subscription under the radar, this is allayed somewhat by the fact that the subscription service will carry over for existing members who already benefit from receiving a frankly absurd amount of quality games for free each month (now for PS4, PS3 and Vita), cloud data storage and automatic updates.
Microsoft and Xbox One can, of course, come back from this and the claims that this generation of consoles will be solely dominated by PlayStation 4 seems more than a little premature. It’s difficult to imagine Microsoft back-tracking in full on their restrictive policies as some of these are an intrinsic part of the infrastructure of the console.
It’s telling however, that the normally placid Sony have gone for the jugular with a smug, yet undeniably funny advert that shows they are milking every possible millilitre of schadenfreude out of this predicament that they can. Despite much quarrelling every year, no one who ‘wins’ E3 is assured of long-term success (just ask Nintendo and the original Wii), but Sony’s ‘victory’ this year is one of PR and as such is a significant one. By keeping it safe, Sony will be waltzing away from E3 2013 with a huge advantage and it’s now left to the gamers to decide whether they’re willing to dance with the devil and risk getting severely burned.