“When you’ve begun to think like a gun / the days of the year are already gone.” – John Cale, “Gun”
Microsoft’s press briefing immediately established the prevailing theme of E3 2012: guns, and the men who shoot them.
The event began with a trailer for the upcoming Halo 4, a big budget, live action affair whose overwrought scenes of death amid the stars provided some unintentional comedy. If I were a videogame character I would know to stay the hell away from outer space. Soon enough Master Chief appears, his rifle jutting straight out from the bottom of the massive screen, pointing towards the inevitable firefight like a divining rod for destruction. This was the first of countless guns I saw today. Imagine if a sizable majority of the movies that hit the metroplex looked primarily to Rambo for inspiration. That’s the videogame industry.
This is how an E3 press briefing works. I get on a shuttle bus at a hotel I’m not staying in. It takes me to a theater or sporting arena somewhere within a few miles of the Los Angeles Convention Center. I stand in a long line waiting to get into a dark room with a giant screen and a soundtrack of dance pop lifted straight from iPod ads. (At one point a Hold Steady song started and was promptly faded out after thirty seconds and replaced with something that sounded like a dubstep remix of a song from the first Phoenix album.) Eventually a series of interchangeable executives address the crowd, alternating between corporate marketing speak and awkward attempts at engaging the audience. Trailers for upcoming games might lead into a designer playing a five minute section of the game while a PR person repeats the main marketing bullet points. Occasionally Joe Montana will appear for no reason and Usher will dance to his new single with a dubstep breakdown. All of this happened in one form or another at Microsoft’s press conference.
The most important part of the event had little to do with videogames. Microsoft spent about as much time touting the Xbox 360’s expanding status as an all-in-one entertainment provider as they did discussing the upcoming software lineup. Whenever I turn on my Xbox my Xbox friends are almost never playing videogames. They’re watching Netflix or HBO Go or Hulu or Crackle (just kidding) or some other kind of streaming TV service. Today Microsoft announced that programming from Nickelodeon, Univision and Paramount Studios would be coming to the Xbox, and that NBA and NHL channels would be launching services similar to MLB.TV. ESPN’s Xbox presence is also expanding, and eventually every ESPN channel will be viewable live through the 360.
Microsoft also might have undercut Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U console before it even launches. A new program called Xbox SmartGlass will sync your phone and tablet up to your Xbox. The example given at the press conference involves watching a movie on your tablet and then picking up at the same point in the film on your TV when you get home. A few concepts for SmartGlass’s potential game applications resembled some of the ideas Nintendo has discussed for their proprietary tablet-based follow-up to the Wii. They were just concepts, and not actual applications that actually exist in the world, but they included using your iPad to draw up plays for your team to run in Madden or using your phone to keep track of your inventory and set up multiplayer matches in Halo 4. I don’t need a tablet to “deepen” my experience by distracting me with IMDB links or maps of Westeros while watching TV or a movie, but I can see how the tablet interconnectivity could be useful for games. It seems like a very similar concept to the Wii U’s tablet, but without having to pay for a controller dedicated to a single gaming system.
Games were Microsoft’s focus, though, and particularly how games will be incorporating the voice and motion controls of the Kinect. There was a definite “end of the console cycle” air to the event, as almost every game discussed was a sequel or reboot that involved shooting aliens, zombies or Middle Easterners. Okay, that would happen even if they were introducing the most revolutionary new piece of gaming hardware ever designed, but the lack of inspiration and extreme aversion to risk was more pronounced than usual. There were trailers for Halo 4, Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the just announced Gears of War: Judgment, the new Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6, the latest Forza, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, next year’s South Park role-playing game (with an appearance from Trey Parker and Matt Stone), and a small number of new properties that were barely discussed. Almost all were awash in blood and dubstep. EA showed off how Madden 13 and FIFA 13 will work with Kinect voice commands. Harmonix announced Dance Central 3 through Usher’s dance performance. There wasn’t anything new or groundbreaking. Microsoft’s basically squeezing the last bit of gaming life out of the seven year old Xbox 360. The question is will people who increasingly rely on their 360 as a set-top box be in a hurry to upgrade to Microsoft’s inevitable new console. Why pay hundreds of dollars for a new and more powerful version of a device that you primarily use as a Game of Thrones and Mad Men delivery service?
Sony’s press conference is later tonight. Nintendo’s is tomorrow morning. And then there are three solid days of booth tours, backstage appointments and convention floor floundering. Hopefully something out here will remind me why I care about games.