E3: Why Microsoft’s style of presenting doesn’t appeal

Gareth Williams tears into Microsoft's poor showing at E3 this year, and asks if they've really got anything new to offer in a radically-changing market.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider screenshot

Lara Croft's backstory wasn't as well-received as it could have been

Like a withered crooner from another time being called up by the people to represent the UK in an international singing competition, Microsoft always had the short straw by being the first to show their wares on stage this E3.  Being the ones to set the tone for the week without being able to bounce off of the other major companies, Microsoft had a challenge to try to come out on top.

That said, it shouldn’t have been too hard to beat their recent personal best.  2011’s conference gave the world unwanted Kinect interference and casual games that struggled to appeal to most of the computer game playing population.  So what did Microsoft bring to E3 2012?
It appears that there was a serious 90s flare to the entire show.  Returns of 90s staples such as the Tomb Raider “reboot” and the return to Raccoon City in Resident Evil 6 and even Microsoft’s affiliation with the upcoming South Park RPG shows an odd attachment for that time.

On the other hand, there’s still an influence of the modern technology.  Microsoft’s new SmartGlass equipment (with absolutely no influence from the Nintendo Wii-U’s new controller) and Xbox Music (which is entirely unlike Apple’s iTunes) are trying to converge the Xbox into a “multi-media home entertainment system”, but on the gaming front it looks like there’s a huge jump back in time.
This could be the big change in games that Microsoft needs to differentiate from the crowd.  For the majority of the conference it was all about the hardware, but when the games were mentioned the feeling of nostalgia could prove decisive.  There were a lot of old series with new titles shown off on stage this year, but all seemed to combine the old style with newer mechanics for the time.

Halo 4 screenshot

Masterchief and his naked blue computer pal are back in Halo 4

Halo 4 appears to channel the old spirit of the original title in 2001, but with the 11 years of evolution behind it. New ideas include “Spartan Ops”, up to 4 player co-operative missions in the vein of Reach’s Firefight mode but with a bit more structure and with updates every weekday, and the classic comeback of elements like the return of Master Chief and the Covenant forces.   As expected, it will almost certainly be Microsoft’s trump card come November.

The introduction of the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, offered a complete change to the first hour or so by mocking E3, themselves and even Microsoft’s showings up to that point, giving a much needed change in mood which started to change Microsoft’s standing with the audience.  Not only that, but the game is shaping up to be very interesting, with plenty of references to classic RPGs with Parker and Stone’s trademarks of blue humour or very dark jokes, combat system reminiscent of the older Paper Mario games and the pedigree development team of Obsidian Entertainment and the remnants of Black Isle Studios, the developers of the original Fallout games and Planescape: Torment.  Definitely a title to look out for in the future.

Tomb Raider screenshot

Lara faces sexual assault in the gritty reboot

Then again, this style isn’t going to win over everyone.  The trailer for the recent Tomb Raider can be charitably described as misguided, but will probably be called horrific; the trailers showed so much unnecessary violence I wouldn’t be surprised if Eli Roth got called on as a consultant.  The change from rather silly adventure flick to dark voyage didn’t work for when it was called Angel of Darkness, and it certainly falls flat here.
In some areas, it even seems violent for the sake of being violent, which may appeal to some, but to most it’s going to turn them away: especially with the recent reveal that there would be a Quick-Time Event wherein Lara Croft has to avoid being raped.  Considering my own personal views on rape’s inappropriate depiction in the media as a way for female characters to appear “stronger” or to raise dramatic tension such as Madison Page’s capture in Heavy Rain or even considering the old tale of beating up a prostitute after having sex with her to regain money in Grand Theft Auto, this game disgusts me.

On gameplay alone, it has some interesting characteristics and could have worked well as a game for an original character, but forcibly changing Ms Croft into a weakened female stereotype who has to “prove” that she is strong is far too close to Sakamoto ‘s retelling of Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M .  Overall, I had some hopes for this game when the initial concept was released months back, but they’ve dried up now and I really hope it fails as a proof of why people liked Lara Croft in the original telling.

On new Kinect days, there was very little to talk about.  Fable: The Journey, Dance Central 3 – with what will go down as the oddest musical segment at E3 this year with the madness of Usher taking to the stage and “completely legitimately” getting a top score on the upcoming release, the EA Sports integration add little and take little.  No big changes, but includes a strange addition in penalising players who swear during a game of football is something new.

Black Ops 2 screenshot

In the future, all soldiers will wear massive inexplicable bracelets

Ending the show was a demo for Black Ops 2.  The demo presented involved the basics of any game in the series: arbitrary explosions, token “set pieces” and little of new content to really sucker in new players.  It didn’t do anything particularly interesting and won’t change people’s minds on the game or the Call of Duty series as a whole.  Even though Treyarch state they will be adding “open-ended sandbox missions” as a first for the series, what appears as new for Call of Duty is ancient for many other shooters or other games, and sounds as if it is a token gesture of nicking ideas from other genres (such as the “Overwatch” mode peeking at Real Time Strategy games’ notes) and packaging them as brand new. Seems like a poor way to end a conference.

There were other announcements, such as a new Forza, a new Gears of War and Nike+ and Kinect teaming up, but overall it’s clear to see that the Microsoft conference was very incoherent and conflicting.  When there was interesting content it was showcased in exciting ways, but for the majority of the conference it was dull and typical.  When there was interesting throwbacks to what the typical players of Microsoft’s games, such as Halo 4’s demoing, it looked like Microsoft would end up winning the crowd over, but constant disappointments just left a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

For the rest of 2012, I’m not seeing Microsoft coming out on top.  With positive feedback coming from Nintendo and Sony, it looks like Microsoft going first wasn’t their only problem this year; and short of Halo 4, they’re not bringing a lot to the table.