Xbox One at gamescom 2013: Microsoft’s house of cards stablises

Tuesday, 20 August 2013 13:09 GMT By Dave Cook

Xbox One was presented to the press at Microsoft’s pre-gamescom press event in Cologne. VG247′s Dave Cook goes hands on with the line-up and reports on the show.

The muggy Cologne air may be cooling as the clouds roll in over the horizon, but the sun is still shining on Microsoft’s Xbox One.

First, Phil Spencer and Phil Harrison talked attendees through some new strategies and policies, including another ‘u-turn’ in the form of ID@Xbox, the company’s spear-tipped charge into the indie, self-publishing arena. With Sony courting scores of independent talent on PS4 in a bid to democratise the console business, Microsoft simply had to follow suit.

It didn’t disappoint.

Two free dev kits per registered ID@Xbox developer, no application fees, tech support, access to the full suite of Xbox One features and more. This should have been included in the company’s strategy from day-one, but as they say, ‘better late than never’.

The battle is now on between Microsoft and Sony to snap up as much emerging talent and interesting projects as possible. This is now a talent arms race, and we, the gamers can only benefit.

While trailers for Fable: Legends and Fighter Within left the audience cold, news that every single Xbox One pre-order will come bundled with a copy of FIFA 14 marks a major coup for Microsoft in Europe; a territory in which it has long played second fiddle to the PlayStation – Britain aside. It will be interesting to see how this news impacts pre-order volume on these shores, and love or loathe the FIFA brand, a free £50 game is nothing to sniff at.

Kinect Sports: Rivals & tech demo

After the dust settled, members of the press were let loose on playable Xbox One code, and I largely enjoyed what I played. But first, a snag; I watched people playing Kinect Sports: Rivals, a game that seems to play well enough on Kinect, but that failed to scan one unfortunate journalist’s face and calibrate multiple times. He was stood about 4-5 feet away from the device, yet it kept on asking him to step back.

This may be an isolated incident, but Microsoft needs to make sure Kinect works for all if it is to bundle the device with each console sold. Kinect is still viewed as a golden ticket for the company. It has bet big on motion so it was unfortunate the only game on the show that functions solely with the device stumbled in the way it did.

Next to the Kinect Sports pod sat a Kinect tech demo that showed how the device tracking three journalists. The screen identified their faces and displayed their expression, whether their mouth was open and if they seemed engaged with what was happening on-screen. It also tracked the heart rate – BGM and IR – of one participant. How it did this I have no idea, and I’m not sure how I felt about it.

Next, the presenter showed off how Kinect saw and tracked the players from different skeletal perspectives. It showed a basic wireframe in ‘skeleton’ view, and increasingly complex tracking across ‘Orientation’ and ‘Muscle & Force’ views. The tech fuelling Kinect certainly seems to have been enhanced by a great degree, so it’ll be interesting to see how it fares when the games start coming out.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Elsewhere, a Call of Duty: Ghosts session revealed it to be a marked improvement on – in my opinion – the weak Modern Warfare 3, but not a seismic shift in the franchise as a whole. Visually, on Xbox One the game is certainly not a giant leap in visual fidelity, yet the maps were bigger, denser and the ‘dynamic’ elements felt scripted. ‘That’ collapsible petrol station fell down the same way during each round of Search and Rescue we played. It calls the term ‘dynamic’ into question in this context.

The maps included Whiteout, set in a snowy village that has been battered by a large oil tanker run aground, the Middle Eastern town hub of Strikezone and the Chasm’s depiction of a ravaged American city, teetering on the brink of a colossal drop. The pace is faster than Modern Warfare and in-line with Black Ops 2, the knee slide is fun and the controls are the same as ever. I also had no idea how the lean move worked, and it certainly didn’t kick in when flattening against cover.

New perks included ‘Ping’, which creates a radar ping whenever you kill an enemy, with potential to highlight his buddies near by. I also saw staples Sleight of Hand and Scavenger in the mix. The mode we played was Search and Rescue, which is essentially Search and Destroy but with the option to pick up your downed comrade’s dog-tags to spawn them back into the fight.

The Call of Duty fan in me likes that the core hasn’t been radically overhauled, but I wanted to see more of that next-gen innovation we’re being promised by many developers. Finished, I decided to go for a little drive.

Forza Motorsport 5

I had the opportunity to play Forza 5 in a racing seat with an Xbox One wheel and pedals. The set-up was sturdy and fun, even if I’m utterly shite at playing racers with a wheel. The game itself looks stunning, running at 60FPS and featuring a slew of incredible visual effects. I decided to try the 2013 McLaren P1 that you’ll see on the game’s cover, and stuck the game into cockpit view to see how it stacks up. Gear-heads will fall in love with the attention to detail.

The driver’s hands struggle with the wheel, the brilliant sunlight over the Prague circuit painted lens flares and other effects across the dash and the whole thing just felt organic, tangible and authentic down the tiniest detail. It was a simple circuit race through winding streets and neighbouring parks with no AI opponents, but it was still classic Forza. Series loyalists will likely have a ball with it.

Ryse: Son of Rome

I teamed up with a German journalist to tackle Ryse’s co-op arena mode, which sees two players entering a shifting arena – the Crytek developer described it as a gladiatorial holodeck, with environments that shift per round. So between one mission and the next we were taken from a dustry arena floor to a barbarian encampment on the bank of a swamp. It’s a neat mechanic that ensures the game is shifting constantly.

Combat-wise, Ryse is something of a button masher, with light attacks mapped predictably to the X button. There’s not much depth to the attacks at hand, but that said there were very few QTEs. In fact, the only times I was prompted were during an execution attack and when a tougher enemy grabbed me. The enemy has a different coloured hue indicating which button you should press. It’s not intrusive at all. Heavy Rain this is not.

At the start of each round you pledge allegiance to one of four gods for certain buffs and rewards. Swearing an oath to Mars nets you bonus strength when executing foes, while Diana bestows more XP. End of round bonuses are offered based on how enthralled the crowd are, and this can be improved by fighting well, tearing through objectives at speed and taunting the crowd. It’s a neat mechanic that encourages pace and slight strategy between allies.

Overall the game looked nice running on CryEngine at 30FPS. I actually thought it was running at 60 initially but was advised otherwise by the developer at hand. The campaign was not on offer however, but I can see the arena mode being a nice little distraction as long as the range of objectives is varied enough. I killed a lot of similar enemies and poured fire onto a lot of similar enemy tents, so I’m hoping to do much more in the final code.

Dead Rising 3

Because some twats were hogging Killer Instinct, I had to move swiftly on to Dead Rising 3, which for me was the best thing at the show. I asked the Capcom Vancouver dev on-hand how big the open world is compared to the first two games. He told me that the combined play-spaces of both games could fit inside the game’s world multiple times without loading screens and constantly streaming. It’s impressive, dense and still hilarious despite some initial fears.

Case in point; I used the new vehicle blueprint mechanic to weld a steamroller and bike together to make a fearsome spiked monstrosity capable of flattening hundreds of zombies under its cylindrical front end in seconds. It was insane. The amount of zombies on screen at once is impressive, and only rarely did I see frame-rate drops when things got really hectic. That aside, I found little to fault the game.

I decided to play the game silly, so found a suit of knights armour and a claymore and started running around hacking down the undead to earn PP. The photo mechanic may be gone, but levelling up is still important as the character customisation menu holds many tiers of moves, combos, weapon and vehicle blueprints.

The Cyber Cat caught my attention. I was told it’s a robotic cat that jumps around the area at random then eventually explodes. It’s like the exploding sheep from Worms, only cuter. Maybe? I don’t know, but the point is that the game is very fun. Another example, I wore a football mascot’s suit – a big red bull – and a sombrero, hopped into a sports bike and drove through a fancy hotel.

Arriving at the top floor Jacuzzi, I bailed, sending the bike tearing through the horde. Picked it up again and ramped off the balcony down to the streets below to continue my slaughter. It’s massive, full of emergent fun and technically impressive. It’s a day-one release for me at this point, but of course that could change.

A good year?

Was this a good showing from Microsoft? Well, the ID@Xbox program is superb and it remains to be seen if it bears fruit in the long-term. I would like to see it do well, because I love indie talent and new ideas from all quarters of the industry. I just hope the hidden red tape and small print doesn’t mask any ghouls that could threaten the goodwill of Microsoft’s concept.

On the game front, I had no complaints although that Kinect issue still lingers in the mind. Harrison called this the biggest and best launch line-up he’d ever seen. I’m not that taken personally, but it’s not weak that’s for sure. It seems that Microsoft’s precarious house of cards is beginning to stabilise once more. I just hope there’s not some unseen blow around the corner waiting to topple the lot.

What’s your opinion? Lets us know below.

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