For the past few years, Gamescom – as the industry’s biggest and second highest profile video game press event – has served as a second chance to solidify mind share after E3. This was very much the case for Microsoft this year in Cologne, Germany. From the big name exclusives held in reserve, to even more system features that hadn’t been revealed at E3, Microsoft took ownership of this year’s Gamescom, putting on an even better show than last year.
Keep the Exclusives Coming
When it came to Xbox One’s exclusive line-up, the company wasted no time in bringing back the long-awaited Quantum Break back into the fore. Remedy’s latest project was last seen in 2014, where an initial gameplay demo came peppered with elements of “speed stealth” and “time grenades” integration. The presentation was divisive, however. When the game was first shown, it seemed to some as though Remedy was simply amplifying their career-long obsession of time manipulation and draping it on top of a third person shooter, rather than implementing it as a core mechanic.
This year’s Quantum Break Gamescom demo seemed to be a bit more refined (if not more polished) with new time altering tricks up Jack Joyce’s sleeve, as well as new enemies that look to be able counter his abilities. But gameplay aside, to our surprise, Remedy proved that they have stayed committed to the companion television show, which was thought to have been canned after months of the game’s radio silence. Turns out that Quantum Break has undergone a near complete recasting, with Shawn Ashmore now as Jack Joyce, along with Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and Fringe’s Lance Reddick. Saying that the TV show “looks better” than it did when it first debuted doesn’t say much, though; Microsoft’s first unveiling made it look like nothing more than a B-tier sci-fi flick. But for the very least, fans can get off of the novelty of seeing their favorite actors play a role in a game that only Remedy is crazy enough to attempt.
Although Remedy has a legacy of narratively driven third person action games, the Crackdown franchise holds a special place in the heart of old school Xbox fans. But with the first game released way back in 2007, there are plenty of current Xbox One owners who aren’t privileged to hold such fond memories of the original – me being one of them. Nonetheless, that’s hardly enough to stop anyone from appreciating just what Crackdown 3 brings to the table. We’ve seen superhero open world titles since Crackdown was introduced: Infamous, Prototype, and Saints IV to name a few. But we’ve never seen an open world title offer the sheer magnitude of destruction found in Crackdown 3’s multiplayer. “Made only possible by Microsoft’s cloud servers”, every square mile of Pacific City is destructible. From walls, to bridges, to entire buildings, every structure in the city can to shot to pieces or toppled over completely.
Strangely enough, the full reveal of Crackdown 3 was also a chance to give the aforementioned servers some tangible meaning to Xbox One owners. Ever since the system’s first post-launch E3, Microsoft has been touting “the power of the cloud” with no significant demonstration in-game. Games like Sunset Overdrive and Forza 5 don’t boast enough online features to separate themselves from other games in their respective genres. Even Titanfall seems to have lost its significance with the announcement of Titanfall 2 coming to PS4, a platform without the computational backing of Azure. But the fully destructible city in Crackdown 3’s multiplayer doesn’t only validate just what Microsoft’s servers are capable of, it shows off something that we’ve never seen before.
Scalebound was the last of Xbox One’s major exclusive line-up, and many hoped it would be their trump card at Gamescom – especially knowing it was coming from Platinum Games, the action title studio with one of the best pedigrees in the industry. But while we learned that Scalebound is an open world action RPG (slightly contrary to the straight-forward action game everyone assumed), it wasn’t nearly as strong of a showing as we’d hoped. By seeing the main character making quick work of Final Fantasy-armored fools with a massive ally dragon in tow, and beating down towering monsters in four-player co-op, we missed the display of Platinum’s signature dizzying, bad-guy-juggling combat style. Instead, the action looked all too similar to how Noctis and gang make it happen in Final Fantasy XV.
But when looking at an open world action RPG, a completely destructible sandbox game, and an A-list acted third person shooter, thus far, Xbox One has one hell of an exclusive line-up for 2016.
Kicking off the system’s features with DVR on Xbox One was rather strange to see after Microsoft’s run of “Games, Games, Games” messages at their media briefings for the past 2 years. With the recent shuttering of Wii TV, and even Microsoft’s own dissolving of their exclusive television programing, it was unexpected to see Xbox refocus their attention to TV – if only for a brief moment.
Xbox One’s DVR functionality is a very specific solution to a very specific problem. The Xbox One DVR has to be connected to an over-the-air tuner, and, in order for the DVR to actually record shows, an external hardrive is also required. Putting all of the pieces together: a Xbox One, a TV tuner, and an external hardrive, the Xbox One’s DVR functionality only applies to those who currently own the system and are looking to join the chord-cutter generation. This wouldn’t even begin to be feasible for those without the system, as there are cheaper and all-inclusive options available, albeit with a subscription fee.
In the slow-crawl effort to bring Xbox Live back to what it was on the 360, Microsoft finally announced the return of the track pad for Xbox One. The long missed text pad also brings with it volume control and a headphone jack, making the controller more convenient (at a cost) than their competitors. But this also marks a subtle complete about-face away from Xbox SmartGlass (remember that?), which featured texting capabilities from your smartphone or tablet. It’s a wise decision to bring back the practical peripheral back to Xbox One, as SmartGlass was largely unreliable and long-forgotten since.
Rounding off Xbox One’s features, more news was given about the system’s popular backward compatibility. Back when Microsoft announced it at E3, I questioned whether or not if Games with Gold titles would be supported on Xbox One. Such was confirmed at the Gamescom media briefing; however, it begs us to question the state of 360 Games with Gold titles. This month brought us Metro 2033 and will bring us Metro Last Light in the latter half of August. Both titles also make up Metro Redux: an up-rezed packaged port of both Metro titles for current gen systems. Now that Xbox One owners will have access to 360 Games with Gold titles, will 360 owners suffer from publishers pulling support on free games, afraid that Xbox One backward compatibility would nullify any future remastering efforts?
The Bigger Picture
Xbox One’s Games Preview program made a return to Micosoft’s stage, and it seems as if it’s picking up far more steam than expected. Microsoft announced that not only will ARK: Survival Evolve, the massive open world dinosaur survival game, be coming to both platforms, but it will also be added to Xbox’s Game Preview program later this winter. Other games coming to the Games Preview program include Team 17’s Sheltered, Chuckle Fish’s Starbound, and the highly anticipated We Happy Few by Compulsion Games. I must admit that I’m concerned many players won’t fully participate in the Games Preview program as players do on Steam Early Access. But with a growing list of games moving into 2016, it seems that Xbox One’s very own early access program will be given a chance to develop and mature.
As pioneering as early access on console is for Xbox One, cross platform play between Xbox One and Windows 10 seems to mark the beginning of Phil Spencer’s legacy for the Xbox platform. Killer Instinct, Bloodstained, Yooka-Laylee, and plenty of other ID@XBOX games will be supporting both Xbox One and Windows 10. Microsoft even managed to get legendary developer Ron Gilbert (creator of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island) to take the stage and announce that his studio’s successfully crowdfunded game, Thimbleweed Park, will be coming to both platforms. Services will also be shared between both Windows 10 and Xbox One, such as Xbox Live, cloud saves, cross buy and cross save. Since cross platform streaming was introduced to both PC and Xbox, Microsoft has been hyper-aggressive to meld the two platforms together in ways in which neither Sony nor Nintendo have attempted or succeeded before.
When it comes to Mincraft, Microsoft has done well by Mojang and the rest of the gaming community by continuing to support the game on all platforms. But as a now Microsoft-owned developer, it comes to no surprise that Mojang is beginning to make games exclusive to Microsoft platforms. Enter: Cobalt. Cobalt, with its open world side scrolling, shoot em up mayhem, isn’t so much an impressive showing as much as it is a statement in and of itself. It simultaneously flexes Microsoft’s ownership over Mojang whilst giving the studio freedom to form an identity outside of the “Minecraft developer”.
Much more was seen and shown at Gamescom from Microsoft, including more of its 2015 line-up, such as Halo 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider, the long dormant Homefront: The Revolution, and the announcement of Halo Wars 2. Despite the massive amount of games announced and shown at the conference, Microsoft is hopeful in focusing on what Xbox One and Windows 10 owners could expect to play by holiday 2016, which is far more than other publishers and hardware manufacturers can say.
Speaking of Windows 10, the new platform is just one of many ways in which Microsoft is aggressively looking to build a robust ecosystem that expands consumers’ access to games. This includes backward compatibility and Game Preview as well, two features that are rapidly solidifying their place on Xbox One. If we are to take away anything from what Microsoft has shown us in 2015, it is that they’re serious about games – certainly more than they ever have been before.