In some senses you might question the wisdom of having Hollywood’s most en vogue superstar turn up at your video game conference and upstage all your lovely games and shiny new hardware. But Microsoft was generally in that kind of mood, looking to live up to its billing as the sole headline act at E3 2019 given that PlayStation chose not to show up, heralding the announcement of its new Xbox Project Scarlett with the showbiz chutzpah you might expect of LA.
It certainly did that, with Keanu Reeves improbably being cast as Cyberpunk 2077’s Johnny Silverhand, appearing at the end of a trailer for the sci-fi thriller before striding out on stage, the gathered nerds losing their collective minds at the sight of their messiah. “You’re breathtaking,” one yelled, which apparently netted him a free collector’s edition of the game, which will surely have no discernible downsides such as more constant yelling at showcases. More on that later.
It was certainly a moment, as they say. Which even the unveiling of swanky new hardware (sort of) couldn’t live up to. In fact it wasn’t until later in the evening that Keanu came close to being upstaged, as Japanese game director Ikumi Nakamura won over the internet with an announcement of her game Ghostride Tokyo at the Bethesda E3 conference that was as pure an expression of bona fide excitement we might see on these stages.
Such is the dearth of women in leading roles in game development, there was the unfortunate temptation for some to slip into the ‘adorable’ line of thinking about a talented game designer. Nakamura is a protege of Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami and a key contributor to games such as Okami and Bayonetta, now taking on her first director role. But her excitement was contagious nonetheless. And a sorely needed slice of humanity in an otherwise uneven show.
But we digress. E3, the gaming world’s biggest annual event (for now), had nominally kicked off a day earlier as EA began streaming fresh details on its upcoming games. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was the headline act, which looks like Uncharted with a lightsaber and, thus, pretty good if you like those kind of things. FIFA 20 is football with the expected updates and a new FIFA Street styled mode, which is pretty good if you like those kind of things. There were also updates on existing games like Apex Legends, Battlefield 5 and The Sims 4 which is, well, you get the idea.
So there was no great unveiling there, which to be fair to EA, was always what they had promised this year. It was also handy for the score of knackered UK games journalists yet to touch down on the baking LAX tarmac, including this one.
Us pasty lot were left to roast in the Californian sunshine as we queued up outside the Microsoft Theater ahead of the Xbox showcase. Rumours began to filter through that none other than Mario creator and Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto was in the building ready to drop news of an unprecedented Xbox and Nintendo team up. That turned out to be a big fib. But we did get Keanu instead, so we all got to freak out over a bastion of geek culture anyway.
Oh and they had lots of games. Most people had come for the unveiling of the new Xbox console, which has been codenamed Project Scarlett. Microsoft saved it for the end, but decided not to spend too much time on it. It’s coming next Christmas, it will be powerful, load times are a thing of the past and Halo Infinite will be a launch game for it. And no, we don’t know what it looks like or what it will cost yet.
Similarly there wasn’t as much attention lavished on Microsoft’s cloud gaming proposition Project xCloud as was expected, especially after Google Stadia’s reveal last week. You expect this was a concerted decision to play to the gallery. Plenty of time to wonder about bandwidth and internet connections, show off the games that we’re going to be playing on it.
That’s where Xbox excelled. There was a ton of impressively diverse stuff from chunky blockbusters like Gears 5, interesting indie titles like timeloop mystery 12 Minutes (perfect for chinstrokers like me to proclaim highlight of the show) and family-friendly games like Minecraft Dungeons and Legend of Write. We got the From Software and Game of Thrones author George RR Martin’s fantasy collaboration Elden Ring and even a new Microsoft Flight Simulator.
There was a distressing lack of actual gameplay, but the slate was looking impressive. I thought we were going to get some Gears 5 action going on, with a crew of WWE wrestlers entombed under the stage seemingly ready to play new Horde mode Escape. But alas, we moved on. The current whereabouts of Xavier Woods and AJ Styles are currently unknown.
Throughout it all was the Xbox Game Pass logo being subconsciously drilled into our minds. Microsoft’s subscription service is the real centre-piece of its new strategy, be it for playing games on Xbox One, Scarlett or over the cloud. Xbox is funnelling resources into Game Pass like nobody's business, expanding it to PC, and adding another studio under the Xbox umbrella in the shape of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions.
Often you fear the worst when big companies gobble up smaller studios, but the theory behind a subscription service is building out a compelling and diverse catalogue, rather than worrying too earnestly about individual sales figures. That’s the theory anyway, and Double Fine’s brand of quirkiness will fit the bill nicely.
All pretty impressive stuff, signed off by a demo of Halo Infinite running on Scarlett which, I must admit, sent a tingle down the spine. But that was possibly because of that music.
It had pace and style which, oddly the Bethesda conference later in the day couldn’t quite match. The Washington publisher has made a habit of punky, game-heavy showcases in the last few years. But here the tone was set early on with a slightly odd mea culpa from Bethesda Games Studios boss Todd Howard about the wonky state Fallout 76 was in at launch. It’s much better now though. And has battle royale coming.
It never quite recovered from that, not helped by the presenters constantly being interrupted by an incessant stream of WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYEAHHs from the gallery that greeted pretty much every completed sentence. Possibly this was coming from a guy who had indulged a little too freely in the pre-show drinks, but it took the cursed phrase ‘free-to-play mobile game’ in relation to the new Commander Keen title to get him to shut the hell up.
That said, while the show had its issues, the games on show were strong. The aforementioned Ghostride Tokyo is a spooky action-adventure from Mikami’s Tango Gameworks studio, with Nakamura’s reveal the undoubted highlight of the briefing. There was also a first look at Arkane’s Deathloop, which pits two assassins against each other that relive the same day on the lawless island of Blackreef.
Both looked conceptually tremendous (if falling back on cinematic trailers again), but Bethesda brought the gameplay with the terrific looking shootybangs Wolfenstein Youngblood and Doom Eternal. The latter rounding off the conference with a crunchy dose of cathartic hyper-violence. And that was that for day one.
Although I can’t sign off without mentioning Devolver Digital’s surreal stream, a parodic E3 follow-up to its showcase last year that takes place in its fake executive’s consciousness. There was some good looking games amongst the madness, including the Takeshi Castle-esque Fall Guys, brilliant looking action game My Friend Pedro and 8-bit horror Carrion. It was weird and not something a jet-lag addled mind could entirely comprehend.
Same again tomorrow, I would imagine, as Ubisoft and Square Enix get their own moment in the sun.