Looking back on last night’s Xbox E3 2019 Briefing, I can’t help but feel that Microsoft did what they had to, but little else. There were a few surprises, a few steps in a slightly different direction compared to their main competitors, but once again, those not already invested in the Xbox ecosystem will have seen little to encourage them to get involved.
The big problem is that, while Microsoft played host to 60 games on their stage, for PlayStation owners, they know that all of the biggest and most highly anticipated games from third parties will also be coming to their console. Yes, Microsoft had a list of 30 games that would be heading into the increasingly good value Xbox Game Pass and 14 first party and exclusive games, but how many of those would convince the unconvinced to join Xbox this year? Is Ninja Theory’s 4v4 multiplayer combat game really what people expected to come after Hellblade? Is Gears 5 going to draw in the punters when Gears 4 felt slick and polished, but is so rooted as a series in the last generation?
Even the biggest surprise of the night is going to have more people cursing at Microsoft than praising them. Double Fine are a truly cherished independent game developer, sometimes having had to survive in the face of failure, but doing so while producing games big and small with a natural creative spark. Being acquired by Microsoft won’t change anything in the next year or two – Psychonauts 2 will still be coming to PlayStation 4, for example – but what about after then? Gradually their games will surely become Xbox and PC exclusive, and fans will always worry about the possibility of Microsoft interfering and the culture at the studio changing. Those are fears that should be unfounded under the current leadership, but you never know what the future holds.
But showing off loads of games was only one part of what Microsoft needed to accomplish at E3 this year. While not quite as ridiculous as Clint Eastwood telling off an empty chair, they still had to stand up to their absent competitors, and on two fronts. On a certain level, Microsoft believe that streaming is the future of gaming, whether that’s five years from now or ten, and that puts them in direct competition with both Google Stadia’s emerging platform and PlayStation Now’s established one.
This was perhaps the main area where Microsoft failed to really say anything of note. Google have announced Stadia’s launch month, its pricing and its availability, but in response Microsoft simply stated that those in attendance at E3 could try Project xCloud out. One interesting development is that you’ll be able to stream from your Xbox One to other devices, as a part of this infrastructure. You’ve been able to stream from Xbox One to Windows 10 for a few years now, but console streaming will expand this to all the devices that Microsoft intend to bring xCloud to later this year. Sure, Sony did it first with Remote Play, but this certainly doesn’t hurt to let you take your own games on the go.
Of course, the shadow looming over this entire year of console gaming is the fact that we’re coming to the end of this console generation and that everyone is gearing up and getting ready for whatever’s coming next. Here, even though not in attendance, Sony were able to outwit Microsoft and discussed some of the technical details of their console a couple months ago. It made Microsoft’s aspirational introductory video for Project Scarlett feel like an echo of Sony’s own announcement.
AMD Zen 2, Navi graphics, GDDR6, an SSD for super-fast loading, ray-tracing, 8K and 120fps; we’ve heard it all already. Microsoft did step half an inch further than that, stating that Scarlett has four times more raw processing power than the Xbox One X, that the SSD acts as virtual RAM, and, of course, confirmed the widely held expectation that the next generation will start in the run up to Christmas 2020.
As we wind down this generation, they’ve found themselves with no arch rival to be compared with, no competition for third parties to grace their stage, and the entire future of gaming to discuss. In that vacuum, Microsoft delivered a slickly produced show full of games, and yet one that was also largely unsurprising and unexciting.
For more news from Microsoft’s E3 2019 show and all the others at E3 this year, make sure to keep tabs on our E3 hub.