You'll forgive us if we were feeling a little green walking into the Galen Centre first thing in the morning on June 4th. No, we weren't in fact jealous of anyone or feeling ill that morning, but rather, the green lighting scheme that dominated the entire Arena definitely got us into the Xbox mood.
To kick things off, what better title to get us all into an Xbox sort of mindset than the title that Xbox put on the map in the first place. Right off the bat, We were treated to a very professionally produced video with real life actors, spending their last moments in life being sucked out of an air lock as a giant mother ship hurtles to its doom. On the ground below, the one and only Master Chief observes the crash, only to be followed by a floating orb with lasers flailing in every direction. Before long, we were made privy to the first video of Halo 4's gameplay, and we enthusiastically have to say... it looks like every other Halo game out there. The gameplay looks identical, but there are some differences to report at least. Yes, there are new enemies in the as of yet unseen but heavily mentioned Forerunners, and several new transforming weapons to reflect this interesting new enemy. Halo fans will make themselves giddy with further anticipation between now and the game's release date.
It was around this time that myself and my posse noticed that the teleprompter was pointed at an unfortunate angle, which meant that everyone in our section was made privy to everything that was going to be said seconds before it was actually said. In this regard, it was actually great, because I could truly say that I was among the first in the media to know all of the secrets that were to be revealed, by only a few seconds, but hey, in our society, being the first to know has its value.
It was around this time that Don Mattrick, President of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, came out to toot the console's horn. Apparently in the last year, the #1 selling console in the world was the Xbox 360. Considering the spectacular flameout that has been the Wii in the last year, that's really not very surprising.
Next up are some representatives from Ubisoft, showing off a militaristic looking stealth game that could only be a new Splinter Cell title. My clairvoyance proves reliable when the game is indeed revealed to be Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Some cool new features of the title include the ability to execute enemies on the fly with fluid motion much like the V.A.T.S. system in Fallout 3. The game also allows players to attract enemies with your voice via Kinect, which was a super cool feature when Manhunt first did it in 2004, but welcome here nonetheless anyway. The game is going to be released in Spring 2013, and will mark the return of Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer. Only problem? The new voice actor for Sam Fisher sounds nothing like Michael Ironside, which is a big loss for the franchise.
Next up is EA Sports, touting the ability in both FIFA 13 and Madden NFL 13 to use Kinect voice commands to make plays, make substitutions, and make other changes on the fly. I wonder why only those two franchises use it, as changing lines via voice in NHL 13 would actually be useful. Unfortunately, there's no comment on how two players can make voice commands at the same time without the system being confused. Stay tuned on that one folks. EA did bring out NFL legend Joe Montana to demonstrate the feature in Madden, which had a smoke and mirrors vibe to it, but it was fun to see an NFL legend on stage anyway. It also confirmed that player cursing will be reflected with angry player animations on the field. I don't know if that was a joke or not, but it's definitely a feature we can get behind.
Then we're shown a trailer for Fable: The Journey. Nothing is shown here that makes us believe that this journey is destined to end anywhere but the bargain bin. Strangely enough, no mention of the Crytek powered Kinect title, Ryse, from last year. What's causing the delay I wonder?
There's going to be a new Gears of War title. Excuse me while I scrub the layers of shock off of myself. This one seems to star everyone's least favourite COG, the frosty haired Baird. The 2013 release will go by the name of Gears of War: Judgement, and very little else is revealed. Expect guns with built in chainsaws. All other bets are off.
Next we see a trailer for Forza: Horizon, which actually looks like an interesting combination of the real world physics and car library of Forza, with the open road mentality and action based gameplay of a Need for Speed title. Can the combination bear fruit? We'll find out in October of this year, but we've learned not to bet against Turn 10.
Then came the most thrilling part of the show. Did I say thrilling? I meant mind numbing. Ok, that's a little harsh, but when you're interrupting the show to say that Bing voice search with Kinect now allows searching by genre and supports new languages; that's not something that blows my skirt up, and I don't even wear a skirt. New video apps are also coming to Xbox, including Nickelodeon, Paramount, Machinima, and some Spanish network whose named I missed and honestly don't really care about. For the sports fans, NHL Gamecenter is coming to Xbox, as is the NBA. In a cool touch, the ESPN app now supports split screen to watch multiple games at once. In more entertainment announcements, Microsoft also announced the new Xbox Music app, which features 30 million tracks and support across three separate devices.
In a move that was destined to thrill the audience of nerds and big boned attendees, Microsoft also announced a partnership with Nike to create Nike + Kinect training. Those familiar with the iPhone app should already know what to expect, but for those who prefer to use their game console sitting down, Nike + is a training and fitness program that tracks almost every motion you do between your existing smartphone and Kinect. Seems like a good way to get in shape, but if sales for other workout games are to be seen, this Nike + system has a big mountain to climb. This portion of the presentation concluded with the statement: "If you have a body, you're an athlete." Kudos goes to my associate Liana K, who stated at that moment that whoever said that definitely didn't take a good look around the room.
If you have the attention span of a dust mite, you might have been interested in the SmartGlass feature that was announced next. This isn't to say that the technology to perfectly sync an Xbox to a tablet and smartphone running any popular OS isn't impressive. It really is. But I've never been watching a movie on my laptop and said: "You know what? I really wish I was watching this on my TV instead, if only there was a way to instantly stream it to my game console RIGHT NOW, while my tablet starts showing a glorified IMDB page instead." Ok, the tablet screen following the characters in Game of Thrones on a map is kind of cool, as is the ability to select plays in Madden (which was only a concept and not a confirmed feature). An honest question though, who wants to keep dropping their controller in the middle of a game to pick up a smartphone or tablet? I can get behind using my smartphone as a remote for my console, however.
Oh, and the Xbox is FINALLY getting a browser in the form of Internet Explorer. Congratulations Microsoft, you've finally caught up to Windows 95 functionality on your console, now with the potential for hacks and viruses! Using a tablet as a mouse and keyboard has some appeal, but at that point, why not just use the tablet? This is all great technology, but unfortunately, it seems that no one during the development process stopped and said: "Does anyone actually need this?" I'm ready to be proven wrong on this one.
Finally, we're back on games, and this is the best looking one yet. We caught another glimpse of the very impressive looking Tomb Raider reboot. This new demonstration featured some intense combat, fabulous environmental effects, and gritty gameplay. Lara simply gets the crap kicked out of her in this demo, but not as badly as the enemies she burns alive. Highlight of the demo was falling through the windshield of a plane, only to catch a parachute in time to soar through the air to get hit by countless branches. Apparently Microsoft won the bidding war for DLC first. This whole battle for early DLC has become as stupid and pointless as commenters on countless websites screaming "FIRST!" on every article. The only difference is that these console makers are paying millions of dollars for the right to say "FIRST!"
Next we are shown three trailers completely lacking in context for titles named Ascend: New Gods (a title from Signal, the makers of Toy Soldiers), a tron-like cycling game called Lococycle, and a Portal-looking title featuring a floating ball (that looks A LOT like a turret from Portal) called Matter that has Hollywood director Gore Verbinski's name on it. These games look awesome... or not... it was hard to tell with the meaningless teasers we were shown. There's really nothing else to say, but at least these are all new IPs that have plenty of time to amount to great experiences, but it's too early to tell.
Resident Evil 6 is up next, and the action looks more fluid than ever before. Unfortunately for those that are clamouring for a return to the creepy, slow paced atmospherics of the earlier titles in the series, this one looks to up the camp value even higher with ludicrous action sequences that include avoid a train with a helicopter and outrunning an explosion on a bridge caused by a crashing fighter jet. It looks like it plays great, but it doesn't look scary in the slightest, which may be very disappointing. The demo also featured tons of Quick Time Events, but at least they seemed to be implemented in creative fashion. Oh, and Microsoft yelled "FIRST!" on the DLC for this one as well.
Have you ever wanted to play a 3D version of Angry Birds using only the Kinect? Yeah, me neither, but somebody out there asked for it, because we're essentially getting it in the form of Wreckateers, an Xbox Live Arcade title that has you using hand gestures to launch differently powered cannon balls at castles. You gain more points by taking out the inhabitants and knocking down more of the towers. Kids just might love it, those looking for a deeper experience will likely want to look elsewhere.
We were next made privy to the new South Park RPG, oddly titled "The Stick of Truth." We saw very little gameplay, but the second I heard Cartman tell Kyle that "Jews can't be saviours," I was busting a gut laughing. Things only got better when the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, took to the stage to talk about the game, but not before taking their own dig at Microsoft by asking the audience "how many times have you been watching an episode of South Park and thought, 'I'd like to be able to watch this on my television, while hooked into my mobile device, which is being controlled by my tablet device, which is hooked into my oven, all while sitting in the refrigerator?" Simply priceless. They next talked about never having given though to the layout of South Park, and how the game looks exactly like an episode of the show. No gameplay was shown, and the fact that Obsidian has made lesser entries in the Knights of the Old Republic and Fallout series, as well as the disappointing Alpha Protocol, gives reason for pause. If nothing else, the game promises to be hilarious. It's also cool that the game stars you as the new kid in town.
Dance Central 3 was announced after that, but instead of talking about the game, Hip hop star usher took to the stage and danced to his latest hit. I think the song is called "Freeze Time," but I don't really know because I'm a white Jewish nerd with an affinity for Green Day and the dancing ability of a watermelon with an inner ear problem. I can confirm that the song does include the word "baby" a lot in the lyrics. As in "baby, baby, baby, baby." All kidding aside, the performance by Usher was fantastic and a great way to cap off the show...
That is, until Mattrick made an awful pun about "Ushering in a new era" to close the show off.
Oh wait, we almost forgot about the latest Call of Duty title, creatively titled Black Ops II, when it is actually the ninth title in the series. At this point, I'm totally convinced that the only reason they bother including a campaign in Call of Duty games anymore is so they have something to edit a trailer out of. Yes, it's all very cinematic and intense, filled with explosions, bullets, and close call after close call, but it all feels the same at this point. Even when the on screen character jumped into a jet to take out vehicles, our crew responded with a collective shrug. For those more interested, the game seems be taking place in the near future at a G20 summit (which as many Torontonians know, is such a peaceful and well thought out event), with some futuristic weaponry and gadgets, including a wrist watch controlled drone. With all the mayhem going around, Executive Editor Shawn Snider leaned over to me and mentioned that someone seems to have forgotten the meaning of a Black Op. It's supposed to be a secret mission that no one knows about, not insane action set pieces taking place in the middle of a Los Angles look-alike that conclude with a building collapsing onto a bridge.
All in all, it was a decent, but not mindblowing presentation from the fine folks at Microsoft. It was a little odd that they concluded the show on a multi-platform title, or at least it was until Microsoft yelled out "FIRST!" one last time. The games shown definitely show promise in one way or another, but it was a little hard to come out of the show feeling cheated out of a next generation console announcement, but I guess that it just goes to show that there's still plenty of life left in this generation as it is. Who needs an Xbox 720 when I can now organize my Bing searches by genre in Spanish anyway?