For every generation of video games console, fans arguing over which machine is best has often been the most popular game of all.
But never has a new wave of hardware got off to such an inauspicious start as the current one, with at least two of the new consoles being almost dead on arrival and the Xbox One forced to reinvent itself just months after it was released.
But nothing stays the same for long in the video games world and fortunes can change with a single new announcement – especially during E3 week.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles is the biggest video game trade show in the world, and Metro has been there all week long. As usual, it was the pre-E3 media briefings on Monday and Tuesday which saw the majority of the big announcements.
Still smarting from earlier mistakes in the run-up to the Xbox One’s launch, Microsoft made sure to talk about nothing but games, announcing several new exclusives, such as a remastered compilation of all four Halo games (2015′s Halo 5 only got a brief mention), racing game sequel Forza Horizon 2, the continuation of fan favourite open world franchise Crackdown, and new game Scalebound, from acclaimed developer Platinum Games.
Together with this year’s Sunset Overdrive – a garishly-coloured punk rock action adventure – and a host of multi-format games, it helped cement Microsoft’s renewed commitment to core gamers; as emphasised by the recent release of a version of the Xbox One console that doesn’t contain the controversial Kinect motion sensor.
‘We went in with a message around a great games line-up coming in 2014 and we had new announcements, and I think the message landed pretty well with people,’ Xbox boss Phil Spencer told Metro the day after the event.
Sony was not caught napping though, with construction kit game LittleBigPlanet 3, horror adventure Bloodborne from the creator of Dark Souls, free-to-play title Let It Die from Japanese auteur Suda51, a deal to bring LucasArts classic Grim Fandango exclusively to PlayStation 4, and timed exclusivity for indie sci-fi adventure No Man’s Sky.
There was also more on the recently delayed The Order: 1886 – a third-person shooter set in a steampunk version of Victorian London that sports arguably the best graphics on any console; a brief new glimpse at cinematic adventure Uncharted 4 and PlayStation 3 revamp The Last of Us Remastered.
There was also only the briefest of mentions of the Morpheus virtual reality helmet, however, no doubt because it’s still at least a year away from being available to the public. The PS Vita portable console got similarly short shrift, with Sony Europe boss Jim Ryan admitting to me that big name software support for the format has already all but ended.
He said: ‘Are you going to see huge mega budget PS Vita games that we have developed and we publish? I think that’s unlikely. That said, PS Vita does play an increasingly important role in our ecosystem, with Remote Play [playing PlayStation 4 games wirelessly via the Vita] and PlayStation Now [a forthcoming streaming for PlayStation 3 titles].’
But exclusive games are no longer the only weapon console makers have at their disposal to differentiate their formats, and increasingly deals are made not for entire games but for their downloadable content or other minor extras.
Microsoft, for example, has a month’s head start on all the map packs for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the first game in the series made specifically with the next-gen consoles in mind and easily the most graphically impressive. Meanwhile, Sony is treating Destiny, the new open world online game from the creators of Halo, almost as a first-party title – with a bewildering array of extras and exclusive maps and missions.
Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 allows PlayStation Network users to play the game’s multiplayer even if they don’t own the game, but not on Xbox. The same publisher’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, now revealed to support four online players in its campaign mode, will see new content appearing first on Microsoft’s console. ‘This is about providing additional stuff that is going to make the PlayStation consumer happy,’ said Ryan.
But to many the details of who gets what and when seems frustratingly random. Despite such irritations it was a good, if not spectacular, E3 showing from both companies; even if the major complaint against both is still the over-reliance on sequels, and the lack of new franchises.
‘It’s all about a balance, because as easy as it is to say new IP is what’s needed, when you analyse the charts the amount of new IP that breaks in the top 20 for year is typically one,’ said Ryan, putting some of the blame on consumer reticence to support new ideas when they do appear.
In the end, though, the most impressive, or at least surprising, E3 performance was from Nintendo, who, after a blundered launch for the Wii U, have suddenly sparked into life. The brand new Splatoon, a family-friendly online shooter where transforming squid girls fire paintballs at each other, was arguably the best multiplayer game at the show. The new Legend of Zelda impressed with its visuals and promise of an open world environment and Super Smash Bros on Wii U and 3DS pulled in crowds both at the E3 booth and across the US at participating Best Buy shops.
A host of other new and previously unguessed at titles (including tantalising teases of a new Star Fox adventure and the new range of Skylanders-style Amiibo figurines) was E3 at its very best: an opportunity to put video games in the world’s spotlight and excite fans with surprise new announcements.
‘I watched their briefing and I thought their tone and their humour with themselves was great, and I thought really well done,’ said Spencer, in an unusually magnanimous comment. ‘Historically, Nintendo has played an incredibly important role in gaming and they still do today. I don’t mind saying they’ve got the strongest first party out there, when you look at the franchises that they have.
‘But it is competitive, I want to win,’ he added. ‘I want to sell as many Xbox Ones as I possibly can but it really comes down to the games content, and I’m happy to be judged on that.’
All three console makers have made mistakes in this new generation but this week is likely to be seen as a positive milestone for all of them. How each will fare by the end of their lifetime is unknown but at last the next-gen has become the current gen, and the battleground of the console war has moved from the boardroom to the living room…
THE BATTLE OF THE CONSOLES AT E3
Consoles: Xbox 360, Xbox One
Major E3 games: Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Crackdown, Scalebound
Biggest problem: The fallout from the console’s disastrous pre-launch plans still remains toxic for many, as Microsoft rushes to play catch-up
Consoles: PlayStation 3, PS Vita, PlayStation 4
Major E3 games: LittleBigPlanet 3, Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, The Order: 1886, The Last of Us Remastered
Biggest problem: It’s taking too long for PlayStation’s big guns to be released and the Xbox One’s u-turns are narrowing the PR gap
Consoles: 3DS, Wii U
Major E3 games: Super Smash Bros, Splatoon, The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Xenoblade Chronicles X. Code Name: STEAM
Biggest problem: The Wii U had such a bad start it’s almost beyond saving and the focus on making new games for it is limiting 3DS software support