Tuesday, August 12, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

Despite having the largest number of attendees by hundreds of thousands, Gamescom still lives in the shadows of the E3s of the world when looking at it through the scope of big announcements and surprise reveals. E3 may have a smaller head count, but I can’t imagine still talking about Gamescom announcements weeks after the show this year like we did after E3 just a few months ago.  That much was apparent after watching Microsoft’s conference, however I wouldn’t short change the significance of the show too much.

Microsoft took a lesson from Sony’s E3 press conference by giving indies a lengthy amount of time on stage. In fact, they arguably garnered the most attention at Microsoft’s show. It’s important to note that this can probably be attested to the novelty factor of debuted titles being that the remainder of Microsoft’s show contained mostly repeats from E3.

They ranged from The Escapists, which – in the wake of more hardened titles such as Prison Architect, captures a slightly more light hearted aspect of prison escapes for those who fancied the concept after watching too much Prison Break, to Super Hot, the much talked about first person shooter where time is at the mercy of your movements. The in-between titles deserve mentioning as well: Space Engineers, Blues and Bullets, Cuphead, Dungeon of the Endless, Funk of Titans, Goat Simulator, Gunscape, Massive Chalice, Inside, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, No Time to Explain, Plague Inc, Pneuma: Breath of Life, Threes!, and Volgarr the Viking; they all had me excited just about as much as Devolver’s showcasing at Sony’s E3 media briefing. The first quarter of Microsoft’s Gamescom show was easily Xbox’s best service to indie developers in the company’s history.

Microsoft’s announcement of Smite coming to Xbox One couldn’t have come at a better time. Only mere weeks after the pop culture explosion that was the DOTA 2 Internationals, MOBAs have reached a level of relevance in which it has never existed before. Speaking of e-Sports, though Evolve and Halo: Master Chief Collection didn’t bring a whole hell of a lot new to Gamescom, there was an obvious focus on Twitch and the e-Sports community. Evolve showcased a new map up against the Kraken – disappointingly there was no sight of the final monster – and Halo showed off one of their re-mastered maps in Sanctuary, both given the e-Sports commentary treatment.

Phil Harrison took stage at the middle of the show with a stiff dedication in emphasizing exclusive titles, “I’m gonna be using the word ‘exclusive’ a lot” (eye-roll). They were: Forza 5 and Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive, Fable Legends, Ori and the Blind Forest – all in which we already knew about – and an all new title, Scream Ride. Filing Rise of the Tomb Raider into that category was certainly unexpected, however the words “coming to our platform in 2015 exclusively” seemed all to convenient and stressed, meaning that the next Tomb Raider is likely a timed exclusive set to find its way to other platforms in 2016. And then we finally got a chance to see Quantum Break.

Leather jacket donning, dark haired marksmen seem to be Remedy’s staple, and time manipulation – whether that may be the dodge mechanic in Alan Wake, or Bullet Time in Max Payne – is embedded in their pedigree. Quantum Break is no different, with sharp looking cover-based gunplay, and overt time wielding abilities such as fast forwarding past enemies and freezing targets in place. But even as anticipated as Quantum Break’s world premier was, I’d have to say that it was a bit underwhelming. In both concept and execution, none of what was shown was particularly novel or awe-inspiring, and Quantum Break’s main hook of being interwoven in a parallel television series is still a mystery.

Looking at The Master Chief Collection at the closing of Microsoft’s show, it’s interesting to see what their treatment is for the Halo 5 Guardians beta. There have been rumors that the classic approach to Master Chief Collection’s multiplayer modes – such as the aforementioned Halo 2 – could be a way to test how Halo 5’s multiplayer design would look like bringing Halo back to the arena styled ‘weapon control’ shooter from its glory days on Xbox and early 360. The Halo 5 beta looks to focus on pre-set classes as well, very much unlike the full customization featured in Halo 4.

While this may be music to the ears of Halo purists, this makes me nervous. Halo 4 modernized the franchise in a way that made it more approachable like the common culture of today’s shooters without compromising the inertia, map traversal, and dynamism that the series is known for. Halo is very capable of existing both in the past and the future; just look at Bungie’s treatment of Destiny’s Crucible as a very clear example. While limited customization in Halo 5 certainly isn’t the end of the world, I just hope that it doesn’t get rid of the ideas introduced in Halo 4.

If I was holding out for Quantum Break as being the only announcement that I was looking forward to, I’d be sorely disappointed. Luckily I kept my anticipation open. I may be anxious to see what 343 is going to do with Halo 5, and Rise of the Tomb Raider’s (likely) timed exclusivity makes me thankful to own an Xbox One, but Microsoft’s indie treatment impressed me most, bringing some truly compelling software to their platform that no longer makes them look like they’re playing catch-up, but instead solidifying relevance in evangelizing the indie scene on home consoles. 

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