A few weeks ago we were invited to take part in Microsoft’s X15 media showcase. The company had rented out the Sound Academy, a fairly spacious venue on Toronto’s waterfront. While there, Microsoft allowed us to sample some of their most high profile first and third party wares. Huge blockbusters like Halo 5 and smaller indie titles like Cuphead were all present and Microsoft was proudly touting that it was “the greatest games lineup in Xbox history.” Walking around and seeing all the big established franchises and the smaller new ideas, I couldn’t help but think that their boast may be true.
At X14 last year I got to talk to developers from Lionhead about Fable Legends, an episodic free-to-play Fable with a D&D like emphasis on roleplaying and multiplayer. A year later the game has been polished and is nearing it first release. Currently it’s in closed beta and a lucky few have already been playing. At X14 I played as one of the four heroes vs a “dungeon master” villain who controlled the monsters we faced. This year I got the chance to be the villain. I got to play on the PC version of the game which seems to be the best platform in which to play as the villian as it gives you access to a keyboard and mouse which cannot be used while playing the mode on console. As the villain you have complete control over the type of monsters you use, when and who the monsters attack and a complete aerial view of the map in real time. Controls are fairly intuitive for those who’ve played an RTS and much of the fun of being the villain comes from unit management and the hectic nature of defending your turf from invaders. It feels a lot like a tower defence game where the enemy units aren’t just a mindless swarm but intelligent, living people. The heroes played on Xbox One consoles, showcasing the game’s ability for cross-platform multiplayer.
The game is designed to be episodic with the first episode seeing a open beta release sometime this fall. Designed to be free-to-play, Microsoft intends to monetize the game similarly to MOBAs like League of Legends. Selectable hero characters are playable for free on a schedule or playable forever if payed for. Similarly, certain monsters won’t be available at all times for free villain players unless payed for. Of course, the option to play single-player still exists and Lionhead developers assured that the episodic nature of the game had story as a focus as well.
Quantum Break was perhaps the biggest surprise of the show. Before the event the game wasn’t even on my radar, but today I’m excited to see if it will deliver on some really neat ideas and promises. Quantum Break is an action game about manipulating time and space to solve puzzles. The game plays a lot like a amalgam of Gears of War and Dontnod’s adventure title, Life is Strange. Developed by Remedy, the folks behind Max Payne and Alan Wake, Quantum Break comes from a story focused lineage and that shows with what they’ve got planned. The plot is about a company that’s brought about the crumbling of space-time through ill advised experimentation. A TV show on Xbox Live will accompany the game and choices players make in-game will effect what version of an episode they will see for the show. From the demo that was showcased, these effect seem to be fairly substantial, in fact, some background characters will have larger or smaller roles depending on your choices. This blending of two mediums is an interesting experiment that Remedy seems very passionate about. The actors in the show are the same as in the game and great effort was made to capture their likenesses. The game stars Shawn Ashmore as the protagonist Jack Joyce and Aiden Gillen as the villainous Paul Serene. Quantum Break is set to release next year on April 6th and is a prime example of how Microsoft is rebuilding its first party stable after it began coasting on third party support through much of the later half of the Xbox 360’s life.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Published by Square Enix, the new Deus Ex was possibly the most ambitious third party title at the event and was a testament to the fact that Microsoft’s relationship with third parties remains strong regardless of the platform holder’s dwindling marketshare. Mankind Divided is set a couple of years after 2011’s Human Revolution and sees the return of Keanu Reeves wannabe Adam Jensen. This time Jensen has joined an anti-terrorism task force. Like earlier games in the series, Mankind Divided is all about clearing missions using a combination of combat and stealth. Players will be able to choose how the go about achieving success by choosing what paths to take, whether to kill or not and how to combine skills in combat. The demo we were shown was set in a late 2020s Prague and it looked quite stunning. While characters seemed a bit unnatural, environments were gorgeously detailed and layered. The word “dense” comes to mind when describing the Prague level and that’s exactly what Eidos Montreal was going for. Developers from the studio explained that the engine was built specifically for the game and that the vertical and multilayered tower level was only possible on the new current generation of consoles. The RPG elements the series is known for will make a return. You’ll be able to customize how Jensen will develop over the course of the game by augmenting his cybernetic enhancements in different ways. Will your Jensen be more suited for run and gun tactics or will he be as stealthy as a ninja? Deus Ex Mankind Divided is set to release on February 26th 2016.
An Xbox One/Windows exclusive, Cuphead has become Microsoft’s indie darling and it’s not hard to see why. The game is visually arresting mostly due to the fact that something like it has never been done before. In 2001 Nintendo revealed The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to a stunned audience. At first people didn’t understand the appeal but as we saw more about the game many of us came around. Wind Waker was a living cartoon, an interactive animated motion picture. Cuphead attempts that same idea but in the style of 1930s-1940s animation, particularly the Walt Disney variety. So much of Cuphead is owed to early cartoons starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it actually is a long lost Disney picture. Even the design of Cuphead itself is an homage to Mickey’s iconic design. Like Mickey, Cuphead has a white face and gloves, a black body and a pair of red shorts. As cool as it looks, I’m not sure Cuphead is for everyone. Difficulty is fairly brutal which may turn some people off. That said, the game offers variety with interesting boss battles that take up the entire screen, challenging 2D platforming and horizontal Shoot ’em up levels all of which can be tackled with a co-op partner. Cuphead was scheduled for a 2015 release but has slipped to sometime in 2016. If you’re into online gaming, you should check out Slots Heaven.
Halo 5 Guardians
Halo 5 is arguable the most anticipated game on Xbox One scheduled within the next year but it’s also the one I have the least to say about. Guardians is the second game in what developer 343 Industries is calling the “Reclaimer Saga” which started with 2012’s Halo 4. Unfortunately the playable demo that was showcased was all about multiplayer so further insight on the story was unavailable. Microsoft had prepared a massive stage for multiplayer matches. A friend and I played red vs blue with several other attendees and discovered that the formula had barely changed. While maps are bigger and the Covenant routinely come in and launch attacks on both teams, the dynamics and mechanics of Guardians’ multiplayer is consistent with what’s come before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “more of the same” isn’t a problem when the same is still pretty good fun. That said, Halo 5 is also losing something that’s been a franchise staple since the original title. Guardians in the first Halo game that will not have local multiplayer of any kind. This means no split-screen, no offline co-op and no LAN matches which have been part of the Halo community’s cultural fabric since day one. Of course, outside of Nintendo machines, the disappearance of split-screen multiplayer has been a trend in console gaming for a while now. Halo was, up until now, a hold out on this trend. Halo 5 Guardians will be in stores on October 27th of this year.
There were so many other games shown but I chose to focus on these titles because I believe they best exemplify the future of Microsoft’s approach to how they will be moving forward with Xbox One; A renewed emphasis on first party franchises both new and established (Quantum Break, Halo 5, Fable Legends), new ways to delver games (Fable Legends), continued support from western developed third party titles (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided), and renewed support for interesting and innovative indie titles (Cuphead). I personally do not agree when Microsoft claims that they currently have “the greatest games lineup in Xbox history,” that honour easily goes to the original Xbox’s 2003-2004 lineup not only because it had so many great games but because it defined “Xbox” as a brand. That all said, this lineup is pretty strong and is a testament to Microsoft’s renewed commitment to Xbox and “hardcore” gaming after years of Kinect experimentation that went nowhere and downsizing of internal studios. While the Xbox One isn’t going to win trivial “console wars” waged on internet message boards and schoolyards, its made the first big steps in regaining the trust of those who identify as “gamers” and has positioned itself once again as a serious contender after the mistakes made during launch.