In the end it was like the climax of a Rocky film. Two tired, ageing pugilists, circling each other in the ring, before one spots the other's weakness and pummels it, bringing the exhausted opponent to his knees.
Jack Tretton, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, delivered his final crushing blows with the relish of a true showman: PlayStation 4 will not limit the exchange or selling on of its games and it will not require a daily internet connection. Then Andrew House tag-teamed in to finish off: PS4 will be $100 cheaper than Xbox One. Microsoft has twisted itself into tortuous circles attempting to explain the labyrinthine restrictions it will place on the pre-owned games market; Sony sought to pulverise that business model. Tretton's assurances on sharing and selling games roused the loudest cheers of the day in Los Angeles – which in many ways is a damning indictment of far more than Microsoft's DRM policies.
Microsoft got in the first dig, however, beginning its own conference with a trailer for Metal Gear Solid V, the latest in a series of titles once inextricably linked with PlayStation. After this, a couple of new franchises – the long-awaited Crytek battler Ryse: Sons of Rome, the trailer for which managed to re-depict the Normandy beach landings as a battle of the ancient world. There was also Insomniac's Sunset Overdrive, an effervescent and highly stylised open-world shooter that appears to channel Crackdown, Borderlands and Jet Set Radio into one brash blast-'em-up. Project Spark looks like an intriguing game builder allowing users to create luscious RPG worlds with a simple Kinect interface. Lots of people namechecked LittleBigPlanet, but to me, the obvious inspiration is Hapti Co's PC title GameGlobe, which provides a very similar toolset.
Remedy Entertainment's Quantum Break, about a man named Jack Joyce who can somehow stop time and must use this power to save the world, drew some interest from the E3 crowds, but there's still confusion about how it ties in with the concurrent live-action TV series. Dead Rising 3 got a lot of big cheers, and this gritty take on the undead-splattering series looks to have become a sort of Grand Theft Zombie, with the lead character driving hot cars over swarms of drooling monsters.
But there were plenty of chinks. Phil Harrison spoke about Microsoft's record with independent games, but then showed just two of note: Minecraft, which hardly counts any more due to its profound global success, and the intriguing Below, a new "roguelike" RPG hackathon from Sword and Sworcery developer Capybara. Beyond glimpses of Panzer Dragoon update Crimson Dragon and Swery65's episodic mystery D4, there was the inevitable Battlefield 4, the dark and brooding Witcher 3 and the shooter everyone wants to see, Respawn's Titanfall. This mechs-vs-foot solders epic drew some whoops with its robotic destruction; and scenes of pilots ejecting from their cyber-tanks and blasting enemies in mid-flight – Robotech meets the rocket jump.
Then the price: £429/$499 and the release date of November. It's expensive – especially for a machine architecture that essentially mimics a gaming PC; you could build your own comparable rig for not a huge amount more. But then, Xbox One comes with its hugely promising cloud computing infrastructure and its seamless online services, and most people don't want a bulky desktop PC next to their living room television, which is where Xbox One wants to plonk itself.
Electronic Arts: from plants to Star Wars
After this, the two third-party publisher conferences felt like the calm between two storms. Electronic Arts started on an unexpected curveball: the bright and playful Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, a third-person shooter that takes the opponents of the popular tower defence game into an action setting. Here we stumbled on one of the first themes of the night: colourful, stylised action titles that hark back to the glory days of Rare or the Jak and Daxter era – PlayStation 4 launch title Knack and a few of the PS4 indie titles are in the same sort of space.
Titanfall showed up again, this time with a gameplay demo that showed the interplay between foot soldiers and mechs, the former using the verticality of buildings to compete against hulling metal foe. Then Need For Speed Rivals rocketed onto the screen, bringing with it the second theme of the night – open-world racers that blur the lines between co-op, multiplayer and single-player. It would later be followed by Sony's DriveClub and Ubisoft's multi-terrain giant, The Crew. All are taking on the expansive driving genre introduced by Test Drive Unlimited and reworking it for next-gen hardware, but right now it's difficult to tease out the individual quirks amid all that brushed aluminium and lasciviously winking lens flare.
There was a huge segment on the EA Sports titles. NBA Live 14, Madden 14 and Fifa 14 all look super sharp and authentic, powered by the studio's Ignite engine which seeks to bring true procedural animation and supportive intelligence to players and therefore (in theory) a more creative and supple sporting experience. Producers came on stage to talk about the huge number of calculations that AI players were making each minute; buzzwords such as "pro-instincts" and "precision movement" got belted into the auditorium to the delight of the target audience. All solid stuff from the publisher's reliable cash cows. The UFC segment, though, was a surreal love-in between EA and the sport's mouthpiece, Dana White. "Fighting was the first sport on Earth," enthused White at one point, making mankind's bloody ascent from the apes sound like a bitching subscription TV event. We are promised "full-body deformation" from the character models. Lovely.
Although a big 64-player demo of Battlefield was nice (culminating in several players parachuting from a collapsing skyscraper – the next generation is all about scale), the big cheers of the conference were about the return of two much-loved franchises. EA Dice showed the merest glimpse of its Star Wars: Battlefront reboot, with an AT-AT foot coming down near a swooping snow speeder. For those who don't remember the mid-2000s series, it was essentially a multiplayer-focused battle conquest game set over a series of familiar Star Wars set-pieces: Battlefield 1942 in space, essentially. The crowd lapped it up. And then the much-rumoured Mirror's Edge 2, looking stately, sparse and sterile as ever – all in a good way.
Ubisoft: from Splinter Cell to The Division
Ubisoft usually provides the surreal fever dream of the E3 conference day, but its showing this year felt a little more measured and conservative. Beginning with Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains jamming along to Rocksmith, we moved on to another ageing male trouble-maker, Sam Fisher, in Splinter Cell Blacklist – a macho fest enlivened by the host, actor Aisha Tyler, who was funny, enthusiastic and towered over most of the development staff.
After showings of familiar and already much-anticipated stuff such as Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed IV, South Park: the Stick of Truth and Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, we got The Crew, a cross-America racing title with seamless player collaboration and competition and lots of levelling up (read our preview here). Elsewhere, a brief mention of Trials Fusion (for PC and console) and Trials Frontier (for mobile devices), Just Dance 2014 (hypnotic colours) and Rabbids Invasion, an "interactive TV show" based on the popular cartoon-like critters.
But the big reveal was Tom Clancy's The Division, an apocalyptic online action RPG, set after the collapse of civilisation – thanks to a virus spread seemingly on bank notes. Developed for next-gen consoles by Ubisoft Massive, it's apparently an open-world adventure (open worlds are another big thing), in which the player's squad must survive the gang-infested city streets to bring some order back. It was a stately and intriguing, though fairly conventional end to a press event that felt satisfying rather than leap-out-of-your-seat exciting.
PS4: killer blows to Xbox One?
Sony started somewhat badly, with a interminable meander through Vita and PS3 titles. Then, however, the PlayStation 4 design was revealed: it's another reasonably large box, this time working a combination matt and shiny surface and a rakish slant. It is a sort of fashionable love child of the PS2 and Xbox One. There was a tremor of excitement, quelled slightly by some subsequent stuff on movie and video-on-demand deals – the perennial buzz kill of the modern console press event.
Then Shuhei Yoshida, the affable head of Sony Worldwide Studios, came on stage. He showed Ready At Dawn's steampunk shooter, The Order: 1886 and he confirmed Killzone: Shadowfall, Knack and Driveclub as PS4 launch titles. This was followed by Sony's first jab at Microsoft, a rip-roaring slalom though a host of Playstation 4 indie titles including a Transistor, a lovely new sci-fi RPG from Super Giant Games, the creator of Bastion. Then Don't Starve, a randomly generated adventure from Shank creator Klei Entertainment and retro shooter, Mercenary Kings from Tribute Games. And they kept coming … the hilarious Octodad: Dadliest Catch, the chilling psychological horror game Daylight, which again, uses procedural generation to create new environments (procedural content is another next-gen theme); and Galak-Z from 17bit Studios, described as an AI and physics-driven open-world action game.
This was an exciting romp through the PS4 indie universe and a true indication of Sony's oft-heralded openness to smaller studios. The company also made sure to point out that developers will be able to self-publish on PS4, an emancipating feature that Xbox One will apparently not allow.
And after a lingering look at the graphically stunning Assassin's Creed IV, it was left to Tretton and House to deliver those killer blows to the Xbox One infrastructure. The deafening roar that went up when the pre-owned games announcement was made must have reverberated all the way to Redmond.
Riding with the chaos
Really, this day was only ever going to be about the next-gen showdown – it was not an E3 conference schedule filled to the brim with massive, crowd-thrilling new IPs. That makes sense: you don't want to put up too many fresh multimillion-dollar franchises in the midst of a console war; the collateral damage here is apathy. You have to ride with the chaos. Some news sites are already saying that Sony "won" E3 – but the event hasn't even started, and Microsoft will have to work out how to turn this PR setback around. Perhaps, though, the corporation was too busy watching its new rival Apple, courting developers at its WWDC. It covets Apple's understanding of consumer electronics, tech culture and entertainment ubiquity. And while it is watching, Sony has snuck up and seemingly stolen back the hardcore gamers.
The console pugilists are still on their feet in the ring, but one has its eye off the fight – guard down, unsteady. The crowd is baying.
Labels: Technology news