Flicker flames and haunted faces
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Tuesday 5 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Microsoft at E3 2012

The problem with E3 is that it isn’t for us.

This is something something you’ll hear when spending any time in the company of games journalists, for whom E3 is a shiny pinwheel fuelling magazines, websites and blogs. But if isn’t for gamers or games writers that leaves the question of who all this razzle-dazzle is for. Are investors really wowed by child-actors cavorting with digital lion cubs? It’s a mystery.

Microsoft opened this year’s E3 with typical pomp and circumstance. They presentered attendees and those streaming over the Internet with a Bendick’s Mingles of an assortment box, by which I mean if you don’t enjoy mint-flavoured chocolates, you’re rather out of luck.

For mint, read BLOCKBUSTER ACTION, and for chocolate, read SPORTS. Microsoft unveiled a lineup which can be summed up as “All your favourite video game buddies in exciting new adventures!” New Halo, new Gears of War, new Call of Duty, new EA Sports, each appearance as predictable as the morning sun. It’s the gaming industry equivalent of visiting a film festival and being shown trailers for Transformers 4. We know they’re in development, we know they’re going to be loud, exciting and pretty to look at. Devs really don’t have to spend ten minutes demoing their favourite Black Ops 2 level for us to get the impression that yes, Black Ops 2 is coming to Xbox--nor should celebrities be wheeled on for endorsements that mean as much to the average gamer as Jessica Simpson’s weightloss plan.

But then, E3 isn’t for us. When conference highlights (don’t laugh) hit mainstream news programmes a few seconds from each of a handful of action-packed games convinces anyone watching that E3 is an exciting place. They won’t hear the jokes that fall flat, the empty pauses when the audience is given time for speakers’ statements to sink in, the broken English from Japanese producers evidently wishing trans-continental air travel had never been invented, or all the other typically E3 moments that have us cringing so hard our spincters pucker inside out. With the smoke and disco lights cluttering the stage they might as well be watching a pop concert. Ooh, look, there’s Usher!

Microsoft’s press conference was unashamedly commercial, not just in relation to its own products but to films, pop singles--even cars. It illustrated Xbox’s new cross-media capabilities using movie trailers, commercial websites and a desperate call-out to TV show of the moment Game of Thrones, the mention of which received a more vociferous response than most of the game footage they showed.

Speaking of applause, one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon went to the announcement of Internet Explorer, now available on Xbox. If they’d announced Chrome’s arrival it presumably would have been met with the kind of adulation saved for the second coming of Christ.

Today’s unlikely saviours were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who preceded a brief plug of Obsidian’s South Park game with a sarcastic take on Microsoft’s convoluted and unnecessary SmartGlass connectivity. This is the Xbox’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii-U, a way of syncing tablets and smartphones with your Xbox so you can watch movies, play games and browse the Internet no matter where you are. As a luddite, this sounds rather dystopian. The Internet once connected people around the globe but now, like the central spider in an ever-widening web of technology it connects them to their myriad i- and e-devices. “Can you imagine life without your smartphone or tablet?” the host simpered at the start of the reveal. I can: it’s the life I’m currently leading.

Away from games, the conference was unfocussed--pointless, even. TV channels appearing on the Xbox dash isn’t likely to change the way people watch sports--remember Microsoft making a big deal about getting together to watch movies on Netflix, the virtual cinema, party chat and all the other widgits that have since fallen to disuse? Likewise, Microsoft’s own music service is too little, too late. With the entire Internet at people’s disposal, having a tiny section of Microsoft-licensed music cordoned off for Live Gold accounts is a waste of time, especially when in the same breath they’re marketing to people wielding iPads and smartphones. It’s like selling novelty cans seaside of fresh air.

Anyone playing E3 bingo would have scored big with unwieldy Kinect demos (Wreckateer), Kinect fitness titles (Nike), sportsmen playing games in their fields (Joe Montana) and dubious voice recognition (Kinect, of course). Sadly, anyone looking for original games would been out of luck; three new IPs were announced with trailers that gave away nothing about how they play, amounting to little more than names on list.

It’s easy to snark, snipe and fume at events like this for not doing justice to gaming as a hobby. Like spoiled chldren we always expect more, with no amount of blockbuster sequels--big games, popular games, maybe even good games--staving off hunger for the indefinable new. If asked, I’d find it difficult to articulate the kind of game I’d like to see at E3. Something intelligent and immersive, perhaps. Something with soul.

On the other hand, I can articulate what I don’t want to see all too well. As far as that list is concerned, Microsoft managed to tick every box.

Microsoft’s was only the first press event at this year’s expo, with many more still to come over the next two days. It remains to be seen whether Sony, Nintendo or Electronic Arts will claw back some semblence of gaming as I know and love it. But based on this opening salvo, there’s one thing I am sure of:

E3 isn’t for me.

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