E3: Microsoft vs Sony (and Ubisoft sneaks past them both)

For better or worse, we tend to interpret E3 through the lens of competition. This is a games industry, after all — competition is inherent in the medium, and the people drawn to it are interested in game theory even if they don’t know what the term means. So as a result, every year we pit the press briefings against each other. This is especially true for Microsoft and Sony, who are such close competitors, and who also often have their briefings on the same day.

Microsoft fired the first salvo today, with a conference that was a bit ho-hum. It was probably the least exciting of the press conferences today, but it’s also the one I expected the least from. We already knew so much about Microsoft, that failure to surprise me was utterly unsurprising. The company’s coolest announcement wasn’t a game, but rather SmartGlass. The ability to create interaction between smart devices and games or movies is pretty brilliant, and has an advantage over Nintendo and Sony by relying on devices you already own. I’ve seen some people complain that the functions shown aren’t ones they would use, but I think they may be missing the point. Those are simple examples, and the core idea of that kind of interaction has a lot of potential for developers.

The looks at Halo 4, and South Park, and even Black Ops 2 were cool, but they were all known quantities. The games that were unknown were logos and CGI teaser-trailers without any footage. Surprise can go a long way at E3, and Microsoft was sadly lacking.

EA was largely dull as well. I’m a little disappointed at how action-oriented Dead Space 3 looks, but I know that E3 is an action-heavy spectacle and they have to put that foot forward. I just don’t know if the series will keep its moody tone through co-op.

Ubisoft came out swinging. Despite an embarrassing dance opener, the company had its best host yet in Aisha Tyler, and showed off an impressive line-up of games. Rayman Legends looks even better than Origins, and despite the lack of gameplay Zombi U seems like has an interesting multiplayer hook. I like the idea of two players in the same game playing entirely separate genres. Then Ubisoft finished with one of the surprises of the show, Watch Dogs. Everything about the world seems grounded and smartly designed. This one could be the next Assassin’s Creed.

Sony’s conference was slightly better than Microsoft’s, but only just. I’ve seen it pointed out that Sony actually covered fewer games, but I think it probably spent more time on each game, and it had more surprises. Beyond looks gorgeous in a way only Quantic Dream games do. I’m sure some will complain about Book of Spells, but it seems like a cute and clever idea for kids — not to mention a potential blockbuster for Sony. I mean, Harry Potter is still huge. I had hoped for more of an expansion to PlayStation Plus, maybe with some detail on Vita plans or Gaikai streaming, but a few free games are pretty good. Not much Vita support in general, to be honest, though I will certainly play the Assassin’s Creed game starring the dread pirate lady.

So gut reaction, I’ll give a C to Microsoft and a C+ to Sony. I don’t rate software manufacturers, so hopefully Nintendo brings its A-game.

And just to keep myself honest, here’s how my predictions have played out so far:

  • New features for Halo 4 – not really, but too early to tell what we’ll see once the show floor opens
  • another stab at a decent Kinect line-up – almost everything was either Kinect or had Kinect functionality, so yes
  • More set-top services being added to the Dashboard – Most of them sports, but still correct
  • An on-stage demonstration of Black Ops 2 – Yep
  • Exclusive footage and/or gameplay demonstration of the new project from Respawn or Bungie – Nope
  • Pack-in bundles for Vita – Assassin’s Creed bundle announced
  • Expanded PlayStation Plus program – Half-right. They did “expand” PS+ but not in the way I was picturing
  • Gaikai emulation on PS3/Vita – Nope
  • A gobsmacking look at The Last of Us – Subjective

So my tally is 4.5 out of 8.

E3 is exhausting, even covering it from home. Time for some Daily Show and a game or two before bed, then up tomorrow to do it all again for Nintendo. It already looks like one of my predictions may have been half-wrong. I say “half” because I wasn’t really scoffing at an “XL” upgrade, more at the idea that Nintendo would revise with a second stick.

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