Tuesday 6 December 2016

Games: Adventures in gaming nirvana at E3

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Project Scorpio: Xbox boss Phil Spencer at the Microsoft Xbox event ahead of the E3 expo in Los Angeles this week.
Project Scorpio: Xbox boss Phil Spencer at the Microsoft Xbox event ahead of the E3 expo in Los Angeles this week.
We Happy Few
Legends of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Imagine spending eight hours in the mosh pit at an AC/DC gig, or getting stuck in rucks and mauls with the Irish rugby team all day long. Now you have a rough idea of what happens when 50,000 games enthusiasts - media, retailers and developers - converge on Los Angeles for E3, the annual showcase for the industry.

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For the best part of a week, LA becomes the epicentre of the €90bn-a-year pop-culture phenomenon, cramming tens of thousands of delegates into the Los Angeles Convention Center. The circus rolls into town, bringing hundreds of new games, including the ones you'll be crying out for this Christmas, and many that won't see the light of day until 2017 and beyond.

This year was even more seismic as both Microsoft and Sony dropped bombshells in the form of tantalising glimpses of new consoles.

First, PlayStation chief Andrew House confirmed speculation that the PS4 would be upgraded with a new model to handle super-high-definition 4K visuals. But detail was scant and PlayStation Neo, as it's known, has neither a price nor a release date attached.

Microsoft, perhaps conscious its Xbox One console has been outsold two-to-one by the PS4, went for the nuclear option at a pre-E3 briefing on Monday.

Xbox boss Phil Spencer excited the audience by describing his new machine - dubbed Project Scorpio - as the "most powerful console ever". But he left them hanging as he went on to explain that Scorpio was only a glint in Microsoft's eye, with the final hardware not due on the shelves for up to 18 months.

Pricing remains unknown but Spencer was at pains to point out that Scorpio will be backwardly compatible with Xbox One in terms of accessories and games. In the meantime, a modestly updated version of the current Xbox One - smaller, lighter and capable of 4K video - launches in August, priced from €300 to €400.

In an interview in LA this week with the Irish Independent, Xbox head of publishing Shannon Loftis confidently predicted Xbox One would continue to sell well, even as the more powerful Scorpio loomed. "We're not afraid - the reason we brought Scorpio out today was to inspire game developers and get them thinking about what they could do with the power of Scorpio," said Loftis. "We've heard from developers as we were putting together the specs for the box that they wanted more power.

"Providing that inspiration today helps us to line up the right set of games and experiences for Project Scorpio when it launches."

Interestingly, Microsoft talked up Scorpio's potential as a platform for virtual reality, something Sony already has in the pipeline, announcing at E3 that its PSVR headset for the PS4 would land worldwide on October 13, starting at €400.

Loftis hinted that the 2017 Xbox could support many VR platforms, which could mean tie-ups with the likes of Oculus or even HTC's Vive.

"We're not talking specifically about partnerships but our goal is to fuel virtual reality development regardless of what devices are rendering it," she said.

"Project Scorpio is a monster of a console. It renders native 4K with six teraflops of power. It's capable of very immersive high-fidelity virtual reality."

Wise heads counsel that this latest generation of hardware handbags will take a long time to play out. In the meantime, it was the software line-up from all sides that gathered the most attention on the E3 show floor this week.

Nintendo once again opted out of the arms race - refusing to drop even the slightest morsel on its upcoming NX console and focusing its giant booth on just one game. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild indeed looks mighty promising but it's a risky gambit.

Sony's roster of heavy-hitters was led by a typically bravura teaser from auteur developer Hideo Kojima. The trailer for Death Stranding, starring Walking Dead's Norman Reedus, came on all delightfully weird but told us nothing concrete about the game itself. But that cameo was just one string to PlayStation's bow, as it highlighted the return of God of War and a raft of PSVR titles, including Batman, and Star Wars Battlefront.

Microsoft similarly cued up a high-voltage mix of sequels (including Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3 and Dead Rising 4) and fresh faces such as piracy sim Sea of Thieves and dystopian psychological thriller We Happy Few.

Amid the din of the blockbusters, it was pleasing to see Microsoft give time to more thoughtful indie experiences as well as upgrades to the venerable Minecraft to enable cross-platform play.

Sony and Microsoft may have had the biggest E3 booths but they had plenty of competition for attention in the form of giant show-floor set-ups for Mafia III (a whole building including a bar) and Resident Evil 7 (a deliciously creepy haunted house), among many others.

E3's star may be on the wane as titans such as EA and Activision opt out to host separate events of their own, but it's still the most important week in the gaming calendar, mapping out the year ahead in cacophonous fashion.

Eight to watch  from E3 2016

BATTLEFIELD 1

(PC/XOne/PS4, out October 21)

World War I is the theme as Battlefield's familiar blend of infantry, aircraft and tanks clash in glorious 64-player skirmishes.

WE HAPPY FEW

(PC/XOne, out July 26)

2016-06-18_ent_21972893_I1.JPG  

Delightfully twisted thriller about the one man who refuses to take the pills that make the rest of society 'happy'.

TACOMA

(PC/XOne, out 2017)

Echoes of Solaris, 2001 and BioShock in this chiller set aboard a drifting lunar station.

THE LAST GUARDIAN

(PS4, out October 25)

Perenially delayed masterpiece about a giant bird and a young boy (no, really) finally sees light of day.

LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD

(Wii U/NX, out 2017)

2016-06-18_ent_21972843_I2.JPG  

Epic open-world sequel (inset) to one of gaming's most-loved franchises.

GOD OF WAR

(PS4, out 2017, probably)

Heroically angry warrior Kratos makes transition to being a weary dad. Something's bound to get him annoyed again.

SEA OF THIEVES

(PC/XOne, out 2017, probably)

Jolly fun on the high seas as you and three friends try on a pirate's life and like it.

DISHONORED 2

(PS4/XOne/PC, out November 11)

More stealthy shenanigans in a filthy, gorgeous city, now with a time-bending twist.

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